MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Now we want to head into the Barbershop to put a bow on this incredibly divisive and emotional week in Washington, D.C. The Barbershop is where we gather interesting people to talk about what's in the news and what's on their mind. So we're going to go back to the major story of the week - the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Now, we've been hearing a lot from senators and spokespersons and activists, but we wanted to see if we could broaden things out to hear other conversations. And we thought, who better to talk to than local radio call-in hosts and journalists who hear directly from their audiences on a regular basis? So we called Liz Ruskin. She's a reporter with Alaska Public Radio who has been closely following one of the most closely watched senators, Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski, who ultimately decided not to support the Kavanaugh nomination, the only Republican not to do so. She's here with us in our studios. Welcome. Thanks for coming.
LIZ RUSKIN, BYLINE: Hi there.
MARTIN: Charlie Sykes is with us once again. He hosted at a conservative political talk show for many years in Wisconsin. He's an author and a political commentator. And he's with us once again via Skype. Charlie, welcome back.
CHARLIE SYKES: Good to be with you.
MARTIN: OK. Great. I'm glad you're here. And then, finally, on the phone with us is Kerri Miller. She is the host of MPR News With Carey Miller. That's at Minnesota Public Radio. Kerri, thank you so much for joining us.
KERRI MILLER, BYLINE: Hi, Michel. Thank you.
MILLER: And let me start by saying that nobody is pretending that this is scientific research, but I did want to reach out to all of you because I know that people - your audiences reach out back to you. And, Kerri, I'm going to start with you because you host a call-in show, and we pulled some tape from it. Let's just play a little bit of it. Here it is.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: I think that the Democrats have got completely crazy. I used to be a Democrat. I will not be voting Democrat. I'm just going to go Republican all the way down the line. It's like we have turned against each other. It's brother against brother. It's sister against sister. This is really bad climate that we're in right now.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: I am very dismayed with the choice of picking party over morals or character. And also, I think it was fairly obvious from the proceedings that Kavanaugh wasn't fully truthful.
MARTIN: So, Kerri, as you can hear, you're getting people from all across the political spectrum. But I understand that you were actually telling us that the comments aren't falling neatly along the usual partisan lines. Tell us a little bit more.
MARTIN: Exactly right. In the show that you're playing the comments from, my question to the audience was - is - what's going on with Brett Kavanaugh and the confirmation hearings motivating you as a voter? Is it influencing the way you're thinking of some very competitive races in Minnesota? And, you know, I can usually predict how the calls are going to come in. What I am seeing is people are highly engaged and really knowledgeable about what was happening. And they were calling with some unexpected things to say.
I mean, you hear that one caller saying, I'm disappointed that it's all about party. You hear the other caller saying, I usually vote Democratic, this has turned me off. And I think that's pretty representative of the calls that I've been getting over the last couple of weeks about this. People are really turned off.
MILLER: Charlie, what - I'm sorry. Go ahead. They're turned off by...
MILLER: They're turned off by the bare politics of this.
MARTIN: Charlie, what about you? What are people tweeting you and saying to you on social media and elsewhere?
SYKES: Yeah. I wanted to mention, of course, I don't have a radio talk show anymore. But yeah, there's no question about it that you have a high level of engagement. And there's - this is one of those moments where there's an intersection of emotion and substance. Virtually every issue that you could imagine is in play here, which explains why you have this really bitter partisan divide, you know, much more divisive and crucial, I think, than even the health care vote because the health care vote is a piece of legislation that could be re-voted upon. This will determine the fate of the courts for 30 years.
So there's no question about it that there is a Kavanaugh bump on the right, that there is a rallying around - among Republicans who feel that he has been treated unfairly. But obviously, you know, that doesn't mean that there is not anti-Kavanaugh no bump at all. The big question that I have is, is this a sugar high for Republicans, or is it really a game changer? And nobody knows because we've never been here before.
MARTIN: So, Liz, Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski is one of only two senators to vote across party lines. She voted against Kavanaugh. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, the Democrat, being the other, he voted for Kavanaugh. I was wondering - you've been covering not just her, but you've also been covering the people who are trying to influence her vote. Tell us about that. What do you think based on what you have been reporting influenced her thinking on this?
RUSKIN: I think she was very much moved by all the women that came to Washington, women in Alaska jumped on last-minute airplanes, got on red-eyes and got up the next morning off the plane without any sleep and, you know, went to lobby her and went to talk to her. And a lot of them were sexual assault survivors. Alaska has a sky-high rate of sexual assault. And a lot of them told their stories. And the ACLU sponsored a big group of Alaskans. So a lot of them were lawyers. And they, you know, made their case, especially about judicial temperament. They actually brought the judicial code of conduct into their meetings with her, and she cited that on the floor. So a lot of the survivors and attorneys I talked to who've met with Lisa Murkowski in the last couple of days felt like they heard their arguments and their stories in her statement, at least to some degree.
MARTIN: And you also, though, were the reporter who asked her if she had - she herself had had a #MeToo moment, which is something that a lot of reporters have picked up on. Do you think that was relevant?
RUSKIN: It was relevant. I don't think it was, you know, it wasn't the direct cause of how she reacted. But she didn't tell us much about her #MeToo moment, but the emphatic way that she answered immediately without thinking about it told me that she identified to some extent with the #MeToo stories and that these stories must have really resonated with her more because she had that experience.
MARTIN: So, Kerri, we're hearing so much about anger - right? - that anger's so much a part of our political environment now. Are you hearing that? And what is it that people say they're angry about?
MILLER: I am hearing that. I hear kind of short fuses. And, you know, I've been doing the show for over a decade. I can tell when people feel like they're kind of at the end of their rope, and this is one of those times. It feels chaotic and disordered. And we have a bunch of highly competitive races in Minnesota. And so the atmosphere already feels elevated and then you throw this Kavanaugh situation into that. And the - I think the anger is kind of hair trigger. One wrong comment by one caller can trigger a big social media reaction or three other calls into the show, you know, and still with four weeks to go. I think people are experiencing this at a, you know, at a kind of level that we haven't seen in our state - again, with a bunch of competitive races thrown in.
MARTIN: Charlie, what about you? I know that in the past, just when you were concluding your long stint as a talk show host in Wisconsin, you wrote about the anger. And, frankly, you wrote with some regret about your - what you saw as kind of your role in stoking it. And now that you've had a little bit of distance from it, what do you think is - do you agree that this is just a hair-trigger moment and everybody seems elevated? What's your take on why that is?
SYKES: No, she's absolutely right that it is very much a hair-trigger moment. You can really see that on social media. It's interesting that you put it that way because just the slightest wrong turn or the use of the wrong word or any attempt at nuance and you're going to be flattened on social media. And I think that this is a reflection of the tribalization of our politics and the substitute of rage for argumentation. You really get the sense that no one any longer is trying to persuade anyone or to change anyone's mind. The goal seems to be just to beat the other side, to make heads explode.
And I think that's been a culture that's been coming a long time, and it's really come to a head right now at this particular moment. And, you know, it's very much a - maybe a, you know, a landmark in the the Trump era where everything seems to be about, you know, smash-mouth politics and the politics of, you know, deny, deny, deny and attack, attack, attack and without much regard for the long-term consequences to the culture or to the institutions that we're talking about.
MARTIN: And, Liz, of course, here's where I'm going to have to ask you to speculate, but we already know that, you know, the president's already said that Lisa Murkowski is going to pay a political price for this. Sarah Palin, the former governor of Alaska, former vice presidential nominee, tweeted about this, saying that Lisa Murkowski is going to pay a political price for it. I do have to say that, you know, my inbox all afternoon has been filling up with interest groups from both sides of the aisle identifying either party who they say is going to pay a political price for this. But talk to me about the Alaska case and about - Senator Murkowski. What is your sense of it?
RUSKIN: My sense of it is that Senator Murkowski is more popular than Sarah Palin in Alaska and that President Trump might not have his finger on the pulse of Lisa Murkowski's base. Among her base, this is - this was the position they wanted her to take.
MARTIN: Really, across party lines or among Republicans or?
RUSKIN: Yeah. A lot of her base is moderate Democrats. I had Democrats this week tell me that she was the only Republican they've ever voted for, and they expected her to do the right thing. And they thought that she would listen to them. And I think among her base, this was the move that they wanted her to make.
MARTIN: Well, we'll have to see. I'm sorry I don't have time to dig into this even more. And I thank you all so much for the kind of rare calm conversation that we seem to be having difficulty having these days. I want to thank all of you for that. Liz Ruskin is a reporter with Alaska Public Radio. Charlie Sykes is an author and political commentator. Kerri Miller is the host of NPR News at Minnesota Public Radio. Everybody, thank you all so much for talking with us today.
SYKES: Thank you.
RUSKIN: Thank you.
[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In this story, Liz Ruskin is misidentified as a reporter with Alaska Public Radio. She is a reporter with Alaska Public Media.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.