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Week In Politics: Biden, The U.S.-Mexico Border And A Barbara Bush Biography

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Joe Biden is trying to save a presidential campaign that does not yet exist. As he considers whether to enter the 2020 race, a growing number of women are saying that the former vice president made them uncomfortable by violating their personal space. First Biden's office released a written statement about this, then earlier this week, he put out a video response on Twitter, and today he tried again. Here's what he said when a reporter asked whether Biden owes the women an apology.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOE BIDEN: I'm sorry I didn't understand more. I'm not sorry for any of my intentions. I'm not sorry for anything that I have ever done. I've never been disrespectful intentionally.

SHAPIRO: This was just after a speech where the former vice president joked about hugging a union president onstage.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BIDEN: I just want you to know I had permission to hug Lonnie.

(LAUGHTER)

SHAPIRO: And this is where we will begin our Friday wrap of the week in politics. Our guests today are Jonathan Capehart of The Washington Post and Eliana Johnson of Politico. Good to have you both back here.

JONATHAN CAPEHART: Thanks, Ari.

ELIANA JOHNSON: Thank you.

SHAPIRO: Eliana, would you consider this an apology, and do you think he owes one to the women who've come forward?

JOHNSON: I do think he owes one to the women who have come forward simply for making them uncomfortable or feel violated. But I think Biden has handled this in a sort of befuddling way. He stayed silent for an entire week and let his campaign put out on-the-record statements but not from Biden, from his communications director. They didn't seem to do the trick. Then he put out a video that was - that looked like it was taken on a GoPro. It had very low production quality. That didn't seem to do the job.

Then he came on stage and made a joke about this that really seemed to fall flat. You know, I think you'd need to wait about a year or two and show that you're capable of behaving differently before joking about this. And then he seemed to get to the right place. And so I think it raises the question of he did apologize, but does he really understand what he's apologizing for?

SHAPIRO: So for a politician with so much experience in the public eye, Jonathan, why do you think he has so mishandled this? Is it a generational divide, or what's going on?

CAPEHART: That's exactly it, Ari. I think that the problem that the vice - former vice president is having is we're talking about all of this in terms of invading the personal space of people, women in particular. But the bigger problem for Biden is political, and that is highlighting that there is a huge generational gulf between the vice president and how he came up through politics and his previous two runs for president and where the party and the country are and the field of candidates are right now in the present day.

SHAPIRO: The biggest, most diverse field of candidates in history.

CAPEHART: Correct. And so if age was going to be a liability for Biden before, it is now in high relief.

SHAPIRO: OK, let's turn to the Republicans and specifically to President Trump. Today he visited the U.S.-Mexico border at the end of a week of back-and-forth over whether he would shut down that border. Here's what he said last Friday, one week ago.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: There's a very good likelihood that I'll be closing the border next week, and that'll be just fine with me.

SHAPIRO: And then the president seemed to back down. This was just yesterday.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: We're going to give them a one-year warning, and if the drugs don't stop or largely stop, we're going to put tariffs on Mexico and products.

SHAPIRO: Jonathan, explain the backpedaling here.

CAPEHART: I - you know, Ari, I wish I could. I...

SHAPIRO: (Laughter) Thought you might say something like that.

CAPEHART: I really do. Here - we have seen this movie with the president before. Go big on the rhetoric; make lots of threats. Then there's the hullabaloo. Then there's the backtracking. Then there's the further backtracking. And then there might be one more flourish to sort of stay on the issue. Right now as we're speaking, the president is on the border, talking about the border. But in the end, nothing changes. His threat to close the border was something that was highly problematic from an economic standpoint, and I think that's probably the reason - one of the reasons why he pulled back. But I'm not surprised by the backtracking here.

SHAPIRO: And Eliana, he did something very similar recently with health care, saying the GOP would be the party of health care. And then Mitch McConnell, the top Republican in the Senate, said not before the presidential election. He backed down. Why does he keep doing this?

JOHNSON: I think that's a question that many White House aides are asking. These two backtracks come on the heels of pretty good news for the president when Attorney General Bill Barr released the four-page summary of the Mueller report, which the president was very happy about. But a White House aide has joked that there can only be - the president can only handle so much good news at once.

SHAPIRO: (Laughter).

JOHNSON: And he has a tendency of turning wins into losses. But I think Jonathan hit at why this reversal on the border has happened. We got new economic numbers out today, and they were very good for the president. Unemployment remains below 4 percent. And the president's aides were telling him, if you close the border - we do over $600 billion of trade with Mexico annually - your economic numbers are going to plummet.

SHAPIRO: I want to end by reaching into some recent political history. This week we saw some interesting revelations about former first lady Barbara Bush, wife of George H.W. Bush. These come in a book by Susan Page of USA Today. It's a new biography. And it reveals some progressive views that Barbara Bush mostly kept to herself. One standout passage concerns her views on abortion, an issue that she was cagey about in public even after she left the White House. Here's a clip of an interview that Barbara Bush did with Barbara Walters two years after her husband left office.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "20/20")

BARBARA WALTERS: Mrs. Bush, probably the most controversial question that was asked of you...

BARBARA BUSH: Let's guess.

WALTERS: OK, let's guess.

BUSH: Abortion.

WALTERS: Abortion, OK.

BUSH: Which followed us through our whole political life.

SHAPIRO: The book has a really moving passage where Barbara Bush writes about the death of her 3-year-old child Robin, concluding that the soul enters the body on the first breath, and then she writes, quote, "I believe in federally funded abortion. Why should the rich be allowed to afford abortions and the poor not?" Eliana, do you believe there's room for a position like that in today's GOP?

JOHNSON: I think it would be more difficult probably in today's GOP, but the book shows that it was difficult back then as well.

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

JOHNSON: George H.W. Bush had had a more liberal position on abortion, and he had to change his view to come into line with Ronald Reagan's. And Ronald Reagan sort of marks, I think, the ascendancy of what we now think of as conservatism from an intellectual view to a political view. And so that's not anything new. But what I think is remarkable about this book is that it does show how the death of Robin Bush, the Bush's 3-year-old daughter, really stamped Barbara Bush because in the hospital, she came into touch with much less fortunate people. Both of the Bushes came from wealthy families.

SHAPIRO: Jonathan, in our last 30 seconds, your thoughts?

CAPEHART: What we saw in Barbara Bush's position is she didn't change her position; she stayed silent because of her husband's ascendance to power. There was another piece by Timothy Naftali talking about being openly gay and talking to her about transgender issues and finding out later that their conversation changed her mind at the age of 90.

SHAPIRO: Wow. Jonathan Capehart and Eliana Johnson, thank you both for joining us today.

CAPEHART: Thanks.

JOHNSON: Thanks, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.