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As 2020 Ends, Let's Remember The Politics Of It All

DON GONYEA, HOST:

2020 has been a year like no other, and that's really been true of politics. We went through a contentious election that underscored and reinforced, really, just how divided the country is. And we continue to live with the political fallout over how to respond to the coronavirus pandemic. And the holidays have offered no break, really. But this is the last weekend in December. So we wanted to take this time to look back at the political landscape of 2020. We're going to do that with three journalists who've been on the ground, talking to voters across the country all year as they covered 2020. I'm joined now by Holly Bailey. She's the national political correspondent for The Washington Post. She's been reporting from Minneapolis. Holly, welcome.

HOLLY BAILEY: Thank you.

GONYEA: Mark Barabak covers state and national politics for the Los Angeles Times, but you might find him anywhere in the U.S. Mark, welcome to you as well.

MARK BARABAK: Hi, Don.

GONYEA: And last but certainly not least, New York Times correspondent Kathleen Gray. She is based in Michigan. Kathleen, welcome.

KATHLEEN GRAY: Hi, Don.

GONYEA: So I want to actually start with a story that we're in the middle of right now so I guess some current news. Today, December 26, expanded government unemployment benefits end for millions of Americans. On top of that, the moratorium on evictions will also expire at the end of the year. That's just a few days from now unless, of course, the president signs the $900 billion COVID relief bill. We know he does not like that COVID relief bill. All year, each of you has been hearing people express their worries, their concerns. What is your sense of things as all of these deadlines come to a head with the president and the Congress still at odds?

Mark Barabak, let's start with you. You're in California. What are you hearing from people?

BARABAK: You know, people in Washington - I don't know if they really appreciate the effect they're having on people's lives, people who can't pay the rent, people who can't put food on the table, who are suffering. And the strange thing and I guess you could say the ironic thing is it really does come down to this one man, Donald Trump, who was elected to cut through all of this dysfunction. And instead, again, you had huge majorities of Democrats, Republicans passes. It comes down to one man and his obstinacy. And all it does is reinforce everything people feel about Washington being a dysfunctional place that doesn't care about them and doesn't address the needs in their lives.

GONYEA: Kathleen, the view from metropolitan Detroit where you are?

GRAY: Well, I spoke with a food bank right before Christmas, Gleaners Food Bank in Michigan. And they give out 6 million pounds of food a month. And 3 million of those pounds comes from a federal program that was created in the first CARES Act. And so all of a sudden, this food bank is 3 million pounds short a month of food to give out. These agencies are starting to get calls from people who are worried that they're going to get kicked out at the end of the year because the moratorium comes on.

Now, Michigan has done a little bit. They approved of $465 million COVID relief bill last week, and they've extended unemployment - state unemployment in Michigan to the tune of $200 million. So there is some relief, but it's certainly not coming from the feds.

GONYEA: And, Holly, how about you in Minneapolis there?

BAILEY: There's a lot of concern. I mean, all around Minnesota, not just in the Twin Cities but even in rural parts of the state, you're seeing tent cities pop up in small towns where people don't often see homeless camps like that. And it's just - a lot of people are very, very worried about what happens, not just after, you know, Christmas with coronavirus but all these people who have been depending on this - on these checks. What are they going to do after this?

GONYEA: All of us, myself included, are national political correspondents. We spend our time trying to find people to talk to us and to cajole them into talking to us, if necessary. And that got harder this year because of the pandemic. But I found myself so appreciative of anybody who would be willing to share their thoughts with me over the course of the year. Maybe just some quick thoughts on that notion. Kathleen, you first.

GRAY: Well, probably early on in the summer - I think it was maybe June or something - I went out to Belle Isle, which is an isle in the middle of the Detroit River, and sat and talked with a couple for about an hour. And I asked them about the election. And they told me they weren't going to vote because their vote didn't matter anymore, that it just had no consequence in their life. And that - those two people really stuck with me throughout the election as I talked with people. And I talked with them, afterwards. And they didn't vote because they really didn't think their vote mattered, you know? There's so many people who feel disenfranchised by the political system. And that's especially true in Detroit. Turnout in Detroit, I think, was about 52%, so there's still 48% of the people in Detroit who just don't think that their vote counts.

GONYEA: Holly, you've been based in Minneapolis for months. You've been reporting on the coronavirus and the presidential campaign but also on police reform in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd. Any thoughts just on what it was like to do your job this year?

BAILEY: You know, the spot where George Floyd was killed has become sort of this unofficial memorial. It's still blocked off to street - to car traffic. And one of the things that I found sort of inspiring is that there were a lot of people who - in that neighborhood who had not voted before. And people were at that spot registering people to vote. They were en masse. They were trying to do it socially distanced. And I remember, you know, just seeing people, around Election Day and during early voting, returning to that site and putting their I Voted stickers on one of the signs marking the spot where George Floyd was killed. And it was, you know, quite an emotional thing, I think, for a lot of people there.

GONYEA: Mark, any thoughts on that?

BARABAK: Yeah, I set out to do a piece, you know? Early on. I wanted to do a story about President Trump and senior voters who polls suggested were drifting away from him. So I ended up talking to a number of folks. I was able to write the story. I had some very, very good conversations. But the flip side of it was I was in the midst of a conversation. And, you know, I'm sure, like, all of us got the, you know, I don't talk to the fake news or what have yous. And some guy's giving me the side eye. And sure enough, I'm in the middle of an interview, and a manager of this grocery store comes out waving his arms and yelling and threatening, he's going to call the police if I don't leave immediately. So there was both the good and the bad.

GONYEA: Yeah, before we let each of you go, we're approaching the start of a new year and the start of a new administration in the White House. Given that all of you write about national politics from outside the Beltway, I'm curious what people are telling you about what matters to them. Kathleen, you go first.

GRAY: Well, obviously, people are certainly concerned about COVID and the vaccine. And there's been a little back and forth here in Michigan about, you know, who gets it first. And, you know, do denser population areas get the vaccine first because there's a better chance for spread in those communities? And that means if it's a denser population, it's an urban area, which leans more Democratic. So there's been a little bit of back and forth on, you know, the more rural people want the COVID vaccine, too. Are they going to get it at the same time as urban folks? So there are just - there's so many political things that go along with the COVID pandemic. And I am waiting for that to pop come next year.

GONYEA: Mark, what will you be paying attention to during the transition as you look ahead?

BARABAK: It's very clear, as I said earlier, folks don't like dysfunction. They also don't trust one party or the other. They like divided government. I think that was the message of this election. So, you know, the question is - how much can Joe Biden get done? How much will the Republicans work with him? Is this COVID package, which did pass with bipartisan support, an indication of things to come or just kind of a one-off?

GONYEA: And, Holly, the view from the upper Midwest where you are?

BAILEY: I think, you know, one of the things that I'm going to be looking at is just more broadly, you know, Joe Biden's promise to try to bring calmer days and heal some of this political division that we're seeing erupt across the country, you know? One of the things that was striking about Minneapolis in the days after the election is that, you know, people did go out in the streets and were cheering a Joe Biden victory. But they were also carrying signs that said, we're expecting you to act on things, like climate and social justice and criminal justice.

And, you know, there's so many counties - rural counties were close to the - sort of the Obama-Trump flip counties of Wisconsin that he still did not flip back, even though, you know, Democrats really tried. So it's going to be really interesting to see - you know, can he win some of these people back while also sort of making some of these Democratic supporters who voted for him happy?

GONYEA: That's Washington Post national political reporter Holly Bailey. We have also been speaking with New York Times correspondent Kathleen Gray and political reporter Mark Barabak from the Los Angeles Times. Thanks all you guys for talking to us today.

BAILEY: Thank you.

GRAY: Thanks, Don.

BARABAK: Thanks, Don. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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