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Week In Politics: Vice Presidential Debate

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

For now, we're going to turn to politics. We've got a lot to discuss. We'll talk about the U.S. government formally accusing Russia of trying to meddle in the election. And we'll look ahead to the second presidential debate in St. Louis that's happening on Sunday night. Here to do it is Eliana Johnson, Washington editor of the National Review. Welcome to the program.

ELIANA JOHNSON: Hi.

CORNISH: And E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and Brookings Institution. Welcome back, E.J.

E J DIONNE, BYLINE: It's good to be here. And could I just say that we are thinking of the people in Florida and Georgia. I had family go through the disruption and destruction of Superstorm Sandy. And it's often hard to grasp from afar the personal and property damage these storms can do. And I just hope the rest of the country does right by those going through this.

CORNISH: We're going to go back now to some international news for just a moment because this is something we're hearing more about today. On Russia, the U.S. government has issued a statement accusing Russia of compromising the emails of political groups in order to interfere with our election process. E.J., what do you make of this formal accusation?

DIONNE: Well, this is a huge deal, but it's not a surprising statement. We have been suspecting this for a while. The statement says the intelligence community is now confident that this is happening. The thefts and disclosures are intended to interfere with the U.S. election process. And they note that - the intelligence agencies note, this is similar to what's happened across Europe and Eurasia. We have basically known that the Russians are intervening. It appears that they're intervening on Donald Trump's side, given the WikiLeaks' releases. And I think all future events, particularly the WikiLeaks' releases, are going to be seen in a new light because of this.

CORNISH: Eliana, for you.

JOHNSON: I think this is a shot across the bow from the Obama administration at Russia - a tacit one because it's coming from the intelligence community naming the country by name and formally accusing them. The question I think now is, what does the Obama administration plan to do about this having now said that, yes, in fact - confirmed that Russia is meddling in the election process? And I think that's been the question for many Republicans and conservatives having seen Russia meddling in the Middle East, now meddling here at home. Will action follow?

CORNISH: Now, Russia obviously is a question in this campaign. We heard a lot about it in this past week's vice presidential debate. And to turn to this issue of the current campaign - for a moment, when you think back to that face-off between Mike Pence and Democrat Tim Kaine, how did that set things up going forward, right? Like, how did that kind of set the table for the conversations we're going to have in the next few days, in the next debate? Eliana.

JOHNSON: You know, on the one hand, I think it was effective. It was an effective performance by Mike Pence in changing the conversation, the media conversation, which had been so fixated on Donald Trump delving into this spat over Miss Universe Alicia Machado. On the other hand, Tim Kaine's tactic clearly was to attack Donald Trump, not to make a positive case either for himself or Hillary Clinton. And I think there's been a conventional wisdom we've heard so many times during the campaign that Hillary Clinton needs to make a positive case for herself. And I actually think that's wrong.

Hillary Clinton is doing quite well right now without having made a positive case for herself. Tim Kaine did not do that, and he came off, I think, quite poorly. Nonetheless, that strategy seems to be working quite effectively. And unless Donald Trump starts to perform better, even though his vice presidential nominee performed well, that seems like it's going to be sufficient for Hillary Clinton and Tim Kaine to get over the finish line on November 8.

CORNISH: Speaking of that performance, Donald Trump was in New Hampshire today talking about the idea of debate prep. Let's hear some of that.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DONALD TRUMP: This was set up a little while ago. They were going to cancel it. And I said, why are you going to cancel it? Well, you wanted debate prep. I said, forget debate prep.

CORNISH: E.J., I know debate prep was an issue that came up in the last debate. What do you think Hillary Clinton is going to be doing now?

DIONNE: Well, I hope test scores rise, as teachers use the first debate to show that doing your homework actually does you some good. I think this is a very hard format for Donald Trump. And there was - Maggie Haberman in the Times had an - New York Times - had an interesting piece where they're worried about Trump's ability to express empathy. He has not done a lot of town meetings. Hillary Clinton has been doing town meetings since 2008. I watched the end of the New Hampshire primary then where she took question after question after question because she was struggling to beat Barack Obama, and she ended up doing it.

I think the one problem for Clinton in this format is she still wants to put the attacks on Donald Trump on the table. It becomes a little harder to do that in response to constituent questions. Nonetheless, I think she can handle it. And I'm - I think Trump faces a very high barrier, though - there I go. Once again, we're lowering expectations for Donald Trump.

CORNISH: Is there something in particular about the town-hall style debate? Eliana, do you think that once you bring voters into the process to ask the questions directly that changes the dynamic?

JOHNSON: Absolutely. You remember in - I think it was the 1992 presidential debate where George H.W. Bush was infamously caught looking at his watch, while Bill Clinton went over to an audience member, got down almost on his knees and talked about empathizing with a voter over her economic situation. I believe it was a voter who had lost a job. These are, as E.J. mentioned, chances to connect with an audience member emotionally and to express empathy, and that's something that both of these candidates really, really struggle with.

Donald Trump, in particular, hasn't put himself in situations where he's taking negative or hostile questions from audience members. He had a similar format yesterday in New Hampshire. And he had a moderator there, a conservative radio talk-show host who fielded the questions from the audience and then gave them to Trump. And they were all friendly questions. So I think it's a particularly challenging format for Donald Trump. And once again, though it's not particularly favorable to Hillary Clinton in attacking Donald Trump, I don't think she actually needs to do that. I think just a mediocre performance on her part will suffice.

CORNISH: A mediocre will suffice. Last word to you, E.J.

DIONNE: Well, I think that the thing that she probably most hopes to do is to get people to like her a little bit more. And it's often said that she's much better in small groups, in one on one. And I think she's just going to be sort of focused on the voter and trying to tell the voters out there, see? I can relate to you. I'm not the person who's described in those negative approval ratings.

CORNISH: That's E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and Brookings Institution and Eliana Johnson, Washington editor for the National Review. Thanks so much.

DIONNE: Thank you.

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