Evidence of an October comeback for the GOP?

This is a rush transcript from "Journal Editorial Report," October 20, 2018. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

PAUL GIGOT, HOST: Welcome to the "Journal Editorial Report." I'm Paul Gigot.

The race for control of the U.S. Congress is heating up with just over two weeks to go until Election Day. A new Fox News poll show Democrats leading Republicans by seven points in the generic ballot with 49 percent of likely voters saying they'll back Democratic candidate in their House district and 42 percent backing the Republican.

That number remains unchanged since September. But my first guest says he sees evidence for October comeback for the GOP.

Wall Street Journal journalist, Karl Rove, served as senior adviser to President George W. Bush.

Karl, thank you for coming in.

So describe the comeback. What evidence do you see for it?

KARL ROVE, FORMER BUSH ADVISER: Well, I was suggesting that in addition to increase in Republican enthusiasm and likelihood to vote that's been mirrored in a number of polls for after Kavanaugh that this was actually starting before Kavanaugh. If you looked at some of the individual state polls, for example, in Tennessee up through Labor Day, Democrat Phil Bredesen led in five of six statewide polls. Since Labor Day, Republican Candidate Marsha Blackburn has led in four to five polls conducted. My suggestion was that there were other things going on just besides Kavanaugh. And the other thing important beside a natural increase in Republican enthusiasm was the quality of individual Republican campaigns. If you look at it particularly in the House, since September, North Carolina 13, Representative Budd (ph), Ohio one with Steve Chavet (ph), Ohio 12 with Troy Balderson, New Jersey three with Tom McArthur, Virginia two with Scott Taylor, Florida 25 with Carlos Curbelo, every one of those, which were thought to be toss-up seats, appear to be moving in Republican direction in public and private polling.  Scott Taylor, for example, leads by, I believe it's eight points in a "New York Times" poll.

GIGOT: OK, let me push back at that a little bit. You're saying that the quality of individual candidates matter, individual campaigns matter. I understand that. But we have been hearing four to six months that really the Republican's fate is not in individual candidates' hands. It's this nationalized electorate, the Democratic enthusiasm that wants to past a defeat on Donald Trump that's going to wash all these people away. You're saying that that's not at all universally true?

ROVE: Well, it isn't. There's some truth in it, because the underlying landscape matters a great deal. But take, for example, Florida 27, a Republican incumbent is retiring, very popular, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the Democrats dominate Donna Shalala, the Republicans dominate a TV anchorwoman, Maria Salazar. Everybody assumes Shalala will win. We find ourselves three weeks before election and the polls are showing that Salazar is either slightly leading or dead even. Why? Because she ran a strong campaign and her opponent didn't. West Virginia three, open seat, everybody assumed that the Democratic candidate, a state Senator, had the leg up in the most Democratic part of West Virginia, and then we find ourselves in a "New York Times" poll with Republican House delegates member, Carol Miller, up by eight. Why? She's running a better campaign.

GIGOT: Well, let's talk about broader issues here that maybe affecting us.  One is the economy. A couple of polls I have seen, because of the strong economy, give Republicans the edge over Democrats in head to head, sometimes by double digits, and yet it doesn't seem to be the main voting issue this year. Why isn't the economy working as well for Republicans as you might think?

ROVE: I think there are two reasons. One is because when the economy gets better, people tend to -- to sort of assume that that's a given. The economy was very strong in 2006, in 2006 when the Republicans lost the House, and largely because concerns about Iraq war and scandals among Republicans, but the economy wasn't talked about. Other reason, the president needs to set the tone and focus on the economy and the president has bounced around from issue to issue, from item to item. And the lack of consistency in not only saying the economy is good but more importantly describing what pro-growth policies he's going to pursue in the months and years ahead to make it even better, those two things are missing.

GIGOT: Yes, I don't see any discussion at all about, for example, what is the Democratic agenda on taxes, for example. I think they are going to come out and try, to as I listened to them, quietly, they are going to try to repeal the tax reform, at least in large part, and raise taxes but you don't hear Republicans talking about that.

ROVE: Yes, and look, let me give you two examples of how this could work.  In Texas 23, Will Hurd, in 65 percent Latino district that Hillary Clinton carried and Don Baken (ph) of Nebraska two in a district that Hillary Clinton carried, both were considered to be toss-ups early, yet both have touted on their opponent, saying my opponent will reverse tax cut and my opponent is in favor of a universal government-run health program that will kill your private insurance plan and cost us $32 trillion. And what's happened to both candidates, they have been moved off of the list of toss- ups and into lean or likely Republicans but Democrats have stopped spending money in districts.

GIGOT: Will Hurd has distanced himself from the president on immigration.

ROVE: Right.

GIGOT: Just like Carlos Curbelo in Miami.

ROVE: Absolutely.

GIGOT: Both of those are saying we need to do something about DACA, we need to get a bipartisan deal on security and legalization of DACA. And that's helped them in those districts, so what about --

ROVE: Absolutely.

GIGOT: What about the president's immigration focus in the waning days to have campaign, will help or hurt Republicans?

ROVE: Well, it depends. We've just seen the first outlines of it. If it is defending our borders, that's got widespread acceptance. If it's we'll build the wall, that has less acceptance. If it is extremely, if it's against finding a solution for the DREAMers and finding a solution to a path to citizenship for people who are already in the country, it'll be hurtful. You're right. Again, my point is smart candidates like Curbelo and Hurd understand what their districts want and are fighting hard on those issues and running smart campaigns.

GIGOT: All right, Karl, thanks for coming in. We'll talk to you again before the end of this thing.

ROVE: Yes, sir, absolutely.

GIGOT: President Trump looking to make immigration a central issue in the closing weeks of the midterm campaign. So is it a winning issue for Republicans in swing states? Our panel debates, next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: As you know I'm willing to send the military to defend our southern border if necessary.

(CHEERING)

TRUMP: All caused because of the illegal immigration onslaught brought by the Democrats because they refuse to acknowledge or to change the laws.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GIGOT: President Trump looking to make immigration a central issue in the closing weeks of the midterm campaign and threatening to close the southern border with Mexico as caravan of migrants from Honduras makes its way north. The Mexican government announced Thursday that it has asked the United Nations for assistance in screening the refugees in an effort to stop them before they arrive at the U.S. border. But the president is encouraging Republicans to make, quote, "The horrendous, weak and outdated immigration laws and the border a part of the midterms." So is it a smart strategy for the GOP?

Let's ask Wall Street Journal columnist and deputy editor, Dan Henninger, editorial board member, Allysia Finley, and Columnist Bill McGurn.

Allysia, smart strategy or not?

ALLYSIA FINLEY, EDITORIAL BOARD MEMBER: I would say that I think what they are trying to do is galvanize the base.

GIGOT: Right.

FINLEY: Especially Trump states or Trump won in 2016 in North Dakota, perhaps even Arizona. But where I think it really hurts Republicans is in the swing House districts, suburbia, where it really detracts or distracts from Republican message of the economic growth.

GIGOT: It's a mixed impact, some might help in some states --

(CROSSTALK)

FINLEY: Right. Yes, in those states I think Republicans are polling ahead. What we are concerned is the House majority.

GIGOT: Where they need to pick up 23 seats and 23 seats held by Republicans where --

FINLEY: Where Hillary Clinton won.

GIGOT: -- won. So do you think that a deal on immigration, like a DACA trade for border security, of the kind that looked like it was coming together, would that be helping Republicans now?

FINLEY: It would help Republicans tremendously, especially in those House districts. If you think of Steve Knight (ph) in California, Carlos Curbelo in Florida, it would improve their chances of holding those seats.

GIGOT: I remember Erik Paulsen, in Minneapolis/St. Paul, came to see us and we asked him, would it help you if you had such a deal, and he said it sure would. And he's in a tough race.

Dan, what do you think?

DAN HENNINGER, COLUMNIST & DEPUTY EDITOR: Well, I think this immigration is becoming a liability for Democrats. Oh, yes, I think that Donald Trump did not create this 4,000-person Honduran caravan coming up from Honduras, right? Nobody seems to understand what happens with these caravans, now that Mexico is actually calling in the United Nations to try to help them resolve it.

GIGOT: Well, they're seeking refugee status presumably, right?

HENNINGER: Yes. You know, the president of Honduras himself claims left- wing opponents are creating caravans to embarrass him. And the head of the Border Patrol was down there a couple of weeks ago, he could not figure out what was going on in Honduras.

GIGOT: So you think --

HENNINGER: But the caravans are coming and somebody has to do something about it.

GIGOT: To the extent that Trump focuses on caravans and focuses on saying we can't have our borders overrun willy-nilly, that helps Republicans.

HENNINGER: Because the Democrats are in favor of sanctuary cities, which is basically doing nothing. They want to abolish the Custom -- ICE, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement. They are, in effect, doing nothing about what is manifestly a problem. And I think, especially in some of the big Senate races, this is becoming a problem for Democrats, who they themselves say, telling their candidates, try to stay away from the subject.

GIGOT: All right.

BILL MCGURN, COLUMNIST: I agree with Dan. I think immigration is two different issues. If it's about DREAMers, people that were taken here when they were young, they didn't make the decision, I think there's a lot of sympathy. If it's about other kinds of issues, like family separation, I think it works for the Democrats this way. But I agree when you have a caravan trying to bump-rush the border, that's a different kind of immigration issue and I think it plays in different districts.

I do think there's a danger. I look at my district, the competitive suburban district, classic swing district in New Jersey, where Jay Webber is facing a very attractive Democratic candidate, I think he would have been helped by a more vigorous case for the economy because his opponent is making the tax cuts a big issue. You know in states like New York and New Jersey and California, people are complaining about the loss of the SALT deduction. So I do think that the emphasis -- I do think that Republicans in general have suffered from a lack of emphasis on how good the economy is.

GIGOT: So give these guys what if. Why do you think they are wrong?

FINLEY: I wouldn't say they are completely wrong.

GIGOT: Right.

FINLEY: But in terms of border security, yes, that does play to Republicans' advantage. But you want the message to be on the economy at this point. Not the distraction. Immigration is a very divisive issue in the GOP. And candidates are going to be asked, why what's do you think about this, why what's do you think about, that and that really puts them in a predicament. I don't think they quite finesse the issue.

(CROSSTALK)

GIGOT: I also argue, Dan, look at what happened with the border, family separation at the border this summer. That was fundamentally an issue of, OK, we are going to increase enforcement at the border, that was a fiasco.  And that redounded to the Republican detriment in a lot of these districts because they looked and said, why are we doing this, and yet that was a function of the preoccupation with border enforcement.

HENNINGER: But I think the politics have shifted, Paul, and the burden is now going on over to Democrats for not having any kind of solution to the immigration problem, in the same way that health care has become a Republican problem because people are looking to Republicans for a solution. They said they would do it, they really haven't. I think that's what's happening to the Democrats on immigration.

MCGURN: Yes, I think, look, again, immigration is one issue, but when you have a caravan, again, trying to just come over the border, what people dislike is the lawlessness. I think that plays to the -- the advantage.  And Democrats are incapable of saying that we should have any border security, I think.

GIGOT: Yes, well, if it's sanctuary cities, I think you guys are right.  That plays. But if it's separation of families, I think that's going to hurt --

FINLEY: Fathers who have been here for decades.

MCGURN: Right now, there's a caravan coming, right? That was six months ago.

GIGOT: All right, gentlemen, and Allysia.

When we come back, two closely contested government races giving us an early preview of 2020 perhaps. So can President Trump-aligned Republicans in Florida and Georgia fend off their progressive challenges.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

GIGOT: Two high-stakes governors' races shaping up to be preview of 2020 with Trump-backed Republican candidates in close contests with their progressive Democratic challengers. In Florida, polls show former Congressman Ron DeSantis running even with Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum.  In Georgia, where early voting started this week, Secretary of State Brian Kemp leads Democrat Stacey Abrams by just two points.

So, Dan, other than these are very important states, large states, what's the significance of the two governor races?

HENNINGER: Well, to a great extent, Paul, they are kind of proxies for national politics, Donald Trump versus the Democrats. The Democrats now personified mostly by progressive Democrats, like Kamala Harris, Cory Booker. That would be your set-up for the presidential in 2020. Here in Georgia and Florida, you've got a couple of basically progressive Democrats, African-American, Stacey Abrams, in Georgia, Andrew Gillum, in Florida, who has had to deny, incidentally, that he's a Socialist because his policies are too far left, running against two candidates, Republicans, who have aligned themselves with Donald Trump. So it's a very conservative candidate running against the progressive.

The other thing that I should point out, Stacey Abrams, for example, in Georgia, has spent five years enlisting black minority women, younger voters, getting them on voting rolls. It's a test of the Democrats and the energy of progressive opposition to Donald Trump, and she's going to be an excellent test of whether the Democrats, by running to the left. But running with a lot of enrolled voters and energy, can defeat the Republicans.

GIGOT: It's really interesting. Look at both sides, Republicans and Democrats, these candidates emerged almost from the base, the base of their party. DeSantis and Kemp wrapped around Trump to beat centrist Bush candidates. On the Democratic side, these two candidates, Abrams and Gillum, really the progressive energy. So you have a far ideology divide.  One of these two is going to win. It's a very different government in both states.

FINLEY: Well, I think that's right. You thought to consider the Republicans will probably hold legislature in both states.

GIGOT: Right.

FINLEY: But you see Andrew Gillum, a $15 minimum wage, Medicaid expansion, free college tuition. Stacey Abrams supports many of the same things. And they'll be pushing those. I think some Republicans, you know, moderates, may go along. You have to consider, in Kansas, another governors' race that's up for grabs, Republicans, many Republicans in the legislature support Medicaid expansion and some of the goals of the Democrat.

GIGOT: Bill, Adam Putnam running in Florida, a member of Congress, and he lost to the current -- to DeSantis. And I think Putnam right now would be running away with this race.

MCGURN: Yes, I'm not sure. As you say, it's a black-and-white divide. I think it's also a harbinger for 2020 in the sense that if Democrats can win on this progressive agenda, it'll give them more confidence that they can take those things nationally against Donald Trump in 2020. It hasn't really happened yet. But it's also clearly where the party is, right, where the Democratic is.

GIGOT: It's where the energy is.

MCGURN: Where the energy is. Both African-American candidates in the two states that you mentioned, so it's a real test.

GIGOT: But what are the Republicans in these states running on? They've had -- their Republican governors now. What are they saying we will do in the next four years?

FINLEY: Well, I think they are trying to moderate a little bit. You see in Florida, DeSantis is talking about cutting taxes, cutting corporate rates, partly to draw contract to Gillum, who wants to raise the corporate rate and raise taxes, which does not play well. And in Georgia, Kemp is focusing on some cultural issues, like sanctuary cities, religious freedom law, to try to rally the base.

HENNINGER: One of the X factors, Paul, we talk about Republicans and Democrats, by in large, in all the races that we talk about these days, the Republicans and Democrats are locked in completely on their candidates.  There are still indicate Independent voters in all of the states.

GIGOT: Yes.

HENNINGER: And they have got to figure out which way they want to lean.  And in states like Florida and Georgia, the choice is pretty clear. These are not two close -- like in Ohio, Mike DeWine running against Richard Cordray, they've been running kind of close together, but not in Georgia and in Florida. There's a real choice down there for Independents to make.

GIGOT: This is the current -- these maybe the purest expression, these races, of the polarization of American politics

MCGURN: Right.

GIGOT: -- where you don't run into the middle anymore. You try to energize your base.

MCGURN: I agree with Dan. Henry Olson (ph) has interesting article on this. People think if people are highly polarized and you have to get out the base, his argument is, the way to do it is try to get Independents who are the marginal voters and to appeal to them in a way that doesn't turn off your own base.

GIGOT: That's the internal trick in politics.

MCGURN: Right.

GIGOT: But how -- are there any issues particular this year, Allysia, where they think that, where either party is trying to use that? Let's say education, big-state issue, is a divide there?

FINLEY: Especially in Florida, where you see Gillum -- hasn't said we want to eliminate all charter schools but has used that kind of dog whistle with the teacher's unions. These are unaccountable nonprofit organizations.

GIGOT: Really?

FINLEY: I mean, he stopped them. He wants to eliminate the scholarships to these private schools, voucher programs that Jeb Bush originated, and DeSantis wants to expand private school choice.

GIGOT: OK, thank you all.

When we come back, Saudi Arabia acknowledging the death of "Washington Post" columnist, Jamal Khashoggi, claiming it was an accident. But with lingering questions about the crown prince's involvement, how should the Trump administration respond to Riyadh's latest explanation?

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TRUMP: Saudi Arabia has been a great ally, but what happened is unacceptable.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TRUMP: Saudi Arabia has been a great ally, but what happened is unacceptable. We are going see. They've arrested, just for the people at the table, a large number of people having to do with the event that took place in Turkey in the consulate, the Saudi consulate. And it's a big first step.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GIGOT: That was President Trump responding to Saudi Arabia's statement late Friday about the fate of Washington Post columnist, Jamal Khashoggi.  The kingdom now acknowledging his death but claiming it was the accidental result of fistfight, contradicting the government's initial claim that the journalist, who was critical of the Saudi Arabia regime, had left the consulate alive. Now 18 suspects are said to have been arrested in the case.

John Hannah is senior counselor at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He served as Vice President Dick Cheney's national security adviser in the Bush administration.

Welcome, John. Good to see you.

JOHN HANNAH, SENIOR COUNSELOR, FOUNDATION FOR DEFENSE OF DEMOCRACIES & FORMER NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISOR: Thank you, Paul.

GIGOT: You've heard the story. The Saudis say it was the result of fistfight and an accident. How credible is that?

HANNAH: That part of the story is incredible, Paul. Nobody knows for sure what happened inside of that consulate, yet, we've had a stream of leaks from the Turkish press over the last couple of weeks that have been reported in virtually every American major outlet, in which they say that this was a killed team sent to Saudi Arabia with the intent to murder Jamal Khashoggi, not to somehow lure him back to the kingdom. That part of the story still just doesn't pass the laugh test.

GIGOT: Do you think that American intelligence would have its own information about what happened here?

HANNAH: I think they will have information. Whether they've got the kinds of goods, surveillance from inside the consulate itself at the time that Jamal Khashoggi died, that's unclear to me. We may have to rely a lot on Turkish intelligence for that specific evidence.

GIGOT: Of course, the Turks have their own incentives here. There's something of a rival of Saudi Arabia for influence in the Middle East, so it's hard to know who to trust here, isn't it?

HANNAH: I think that's exactly right. There are so many other agendas going on here. The Turks and their allies in the region, the Qataris despise the Saudis. They would be eager to humiliate Mohammad bin Salman, to take Saudi Arabia down a peg. So they have a lot of incentives here to keep this, drip, drip, drip going against Saudi Arabia and to keep the pressure on the United States to keep pushing the Saudis as well.

GIGOT: The people who have been arrested, and five officials fired, many are in the inner circumstance to feel crown prince, MbS, as he's known, and yet the -- there's no link to him. But is it plausible to you that --the Saudis don't admit any link to him, but is it plausible to you that they would have acted without MbS's approval of these, tacit or explicit?

HANNAH: No, I think as analytical matter, for anybody who followed the Saudis and the house of Saud closely, and particularly Mohammad bin Salman, who is known as a control freak, it's hard as significant as this happening, with the potential international ramifications it's clearly had, not happening without some kind of expressed order from Mohammad bin Salman.

GIGOT: Knowing that, the president calling that a good first step, President Trump. What do you think of that response? And what should we do?

HANNAH: Well, I think, again, as an analytical matter, it's good step.  For two and a half weeks, the Saudis have said that this man left the consulate of own free will, and now finally admitted he has died in the consulate at the hands of Saudi officials, and on the orders of at least people as powerful and as high level in the Saudi establishment as you can get without implicating one of the royals or Mohammad bin Salman himself.  It's important progress for the Saudis. Yet, the United States shouldn't be the people vouching for the credibility of this investigation. We still need answers. We need a body. We need to know how Jamal Khashoggi was killed in that embassy.

GIGOT: All right, when that happens at some point here in the next few days or weeks, then what can the United States do, on a policy front, to be consistent with our interest, which is our alliance with Saudi Arabia and the Middle, East but also our values which isn't -- which means we don't sanction the murder of journalists.

HANNAH: Yes, we, first of all, have to obviously speak the truth here, which was this was a brazen unacceptable breach of international norms against a person under the protection of the United States, living in the United States, working for one of the major American media outlets, the "Washington Post." We have to be clear in our rhetoric and clear that this can never happen again or it will, in fact, jeopardize the U.S.-Saudi strategic partnership. And there are sanctions that we need to put into place, these global Magnitsky Act sanctions, that are very targeted against specific Saudi perpetrators of this action. And then I think we've got to consider real pressure on the Saudis finally. Don't indulge Mohammad bin Salman as much as we have over the last year. He's creating more problems for us than he solves, the problem in Yemen in particular.

GIGOT: Right.

HANNAH: I think there needs a much stronger U.S. hand to force some kind of political settlement here and get the Saudis to the table.

GIGOT: But if you sanction using the Magnitsky sanctions, which are aimed at individuals, it you sanction the people all at the lower rungs here, below MbS, and you don't sanction him, I mean, are you going look like you've actually let him off the hook?

HANNAH: Well, I think that's always the danger. And that's the delicate line the United States walks. We've got to stand up for our values. On the other hand, we have got important business to get done in the international community. You do that with the leaders that are in place in these countries. So long as MbS is there, we've got to be able to do business with him in the interest and in the security of the United States of America. We've seen this in Russia. We continue to have summits with Vladimir Putin, despite the fact he's killing dissidents in England. And we do it with people like Kim Jong-Un, where we have to negotiate an end of their nuclear program, despite the fact that just over a year ago, Kim Jong-Un was responsible for the detention, the torture, and eventually the murder of an American citizen, Otto Warmbier.

GIGOT: All right, so it's a very delicate walk.

Thank you, John Hannah. I appreciate you coming in.

HANNAH: Sure, Paul. Thank you.

GIGOT: Still ahead, Elizabeth Warren tests the 2020 waters, rolling out her response to Donald Trump's Pocahontas talks. Did the likely Democratic presidential candidate help or hurt her chances with this week's DNA release? Our panel debates, next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TRUMP: Pocahontas. They always want me to apologize for saying it. And I hereby

(BOOING)

TRUMP: No, I want to apologize to all of you tonight.

Pocahontas, I apologize to you. I apologize.

(LAUGHTER)

To you, I apologize.

To the fake Pocahontas, I won't apologize.

(CHEERING)

TRUMP: But it's causing her problems, that name, because now even the liberals are saying, take a test.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GIGOT: Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren taking President Trump's bait this week and releasing the results of a DNA that suggests distant Native American ancestry dating back six to 10 generations. The move by Warren, who is seen as a likely contender for Democratic nominee in 2020, is drawing scorn from the right and even some criticism from the left. So was it a misstep or a smart political move.

We are back with Dan Henninger, Bill McGurn, and Wall Street Journal editorial page writer, Jillian Melchior.

Jillian, what do you think of her rollout?

JILLIAN MELCHIOR, EDITORIAL PAGE WRITER: I do think she looked silly and petty in doing something like this. She's trying to have it both ways, insisting that she's Native American, at the same time, insisting that that wasn't a factor in her career advancement. And I think you can't really recognize these things. And I really think this is getting to the tipping point of identity politics. To what extent is it objective and to what extent are you what you feel you are?

GIGOT: Was she smart to get into the debate at all, because she, in releasing this study, which she says was sanctioned by geneticists, she showed that she had no more Native American ancestry than, I don't know, maybe Henninger, maybe Melchior. Not a lot.

MELCHIOR: Yes. The political mistake she made was in college when she identified as this. It's a lose-lose situation.

HENNINGER: Paul, I'm 50 percent German and I'm 50 Irish, and I'm sticking to it.

(LAUGHTER)

No interest whatsoever.

(LAUGHTER)

GIGOT: And 23 and me will show that there's some Neandertal --

HENNINGER: I'm not going there ever.

(LAUGHTER)

HENNINGER: Look, I have taken a sort of different view of what Warren did here. I think she's played to her base. Yes, she took a lot of ridicule for this. I think Donald Trump changed the terms of our politics. Recall back in 2016, all the things Donald Trump said, all the verbal whips. He would say things, and most of the conventional wisdoms, sometimes including me, like the comment about John McCain. He's done and he's out of it. So I don't think this necessarily means that Elizabeth Warren has sidelined herself as a presidential contender. It puts her up as a primary fighter against Donald Trump. And you have to keep the base animated, the same way Donald Trump was in that opening shot, showing he's feeding red meat to his audience about Pocahontas.

GIGOT: You're saying it's a real advantage in the Democratic primaries to have Donald Trump focus on you?

HENNINGER: I think so. It's elevates -- it's all about celebrity and publicity these days. It's about fundraising. Keep in mind, Elizabeth Warren has a national political machine. She has been on the phone for a year talking to candidates, Democratic candidates, all over the country, sometimes at the local level, who have become dependent on her. So this is not just something that she's doing off the top of her head.

GIGOT: Bill, political winner?

MCGURN: I don't think so. I agree with Dan up to the point that Donald Trump's attacks on her help and so forth, and this is the debate. The issue isn't DNA and whether she had a great, great, great grandmother --

GIGOT: Great, great --

(LAUGHTER)

MCGURN: -- or whatever it is. This issue is affirmative action and identity politics. People know if you have this designation, it advances your career in different ways. It's important to the Democratic Party.  The problem I think she has is that she's not the only one. Donald Trump was the only one talking like this among the Republicans, the 16 Republicans. Identity politics is the bread and butter of the Democratic Party. I think this helps Kamala Harris and people -- it speaks to her authenticity. It's not just about a relative she claims -- I think was it her parents, people objected to intermarriage or marriage. And she was listed as a person of color. I'm not sure a lot of the Democrat coalition, minority voters, really likes or is going to favor a privileged white woman, Harvard Law, appropriating a culture, a minority culture.

GIGOT: The secretary of state for the Cherokee Nation --

(LAUGHTER)

No, this is a serious job. He came out and said in a statement that he criticized Warren, because he said that she was essentially appropriating - - using just a small ancestral DNA bit to essentially say I have tribal affiliation. And he said, we get to judge that, and you're not that if you just have a little bit of Native American blood. And you're, essentially, diminishing our tribal importance.

MELCHIOR: Yes, that was a pretty brutal smackdown of a letter. You would think that she would have checked in with them before releasing this. That would have been the politically sophisticated move. I think looking about her campaign going forward, I think that's pretty much seals the deal that she's running for president. You know, we've got the identity politics vote on the left, but I think you've also got the blue-collar vote that swung for Trump. And I'm talking to blue-collar union guys. A lot of them like Elizabeth Warren the same way they like Donald Trump. And I'm not sure that --

(CROSSTALK)

GIGOT: Because of why?

MELCHIOR: They are upset about the economic situation over the past decade. They feel like the system is rigged against them. And in the same way saw Donald Trump was a disruptor, they see somebody like her as someone who will disassemble things.

HENNINGER: Bernie Sanders, for instance, doesn't play the identity card much either. She's done it here. Perhaps she's got it behind her at this point. I agree with Jillian, that Senator Warren is running more of a populist economic agenda than pure identity thing, which you would expect somebody like Cory Booker. It's interesting the way these Democrats all are kind of jockeying and positioning themselves for 2020.

GIGOT: Thank you all.

When we come back, affirmative action on trial. Harvard goes to court to defend itself against charges of discrimination against Asian-American applicants in a dispute that could well wind up at the Supreme Court.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

GIGOT: A lawsuit challenging Harvard University's admissions practices playing out in a federal courtroom in Boston this week in a closely-watched trial on whether the Ivy League schools discriminates against Asian- American applicants. The suit filed by the group Students for Fair Admissions, claims Harvard engages in racial balancing and effectively sets quotas on the number of Asian-Americans it admits in violation of federal civil rights laws, a claim the school denies.

We are back with Dan Henninger, Jillian Melchior and Bill McGurn.

Bill, what have we learned in the trial?

MCGURN: Well, we've learned so far the dean of admissions has been testifying and he admitted, for example, in recruitment letters, when looking for potential students, they would send a recruitment letter to an African-American that scored around I think 1100 on the SAT's, but for an Asian-American male to get such a letter, he would have to score I think 1380, and for Asian-American female I think it's1350.

GIGOT: And 1310 or something.

MCGURN: Yes.

GIGOT: or 1300. It's lower 1300's.

But doesn't that sound to you like discrimination against --

(CROSSTALK)

MCGURN: Right. Look, they're maintaining the liberal map on this. The dean has explicitly said race never hurts you.  So they don't say you're not getting --

(CROSSTALK)

GIGOT: What do you mean? You don't get a recruitment letter, I mean --

MCGURN: Right. But they're saying it doesn't hurt you, but it's a factor for you. But if you help one group, you are effectively discriminating against another, if you have a limited pool.

What makes this so interesting is all done in the name of diversity. And I think when -- when it was minority groups benefiting at the expense of white applicants before, they were OK with it. But now you have this ironic situation where diversity requires discriminating against one minority, which is very qualified, to benefit other minorities.

GIGOT: Jillian?

MELCHIOR: I agree with that. We are looking at hard factors like ACT, SAT scores. But also on a softer factor that's equally disturbing, in June, the plaintiffs came out with information that Asians were being rated on a lower level for things like likability, courage, personal kindness. I think the picture it is painting is systematic discrimination. We're seeing universities that are obsessed with this. Yet, this is the discrimination that perpetuated.

GIGOT: What about that soft analysis? All these schools do make judgments about your extracurriculars, about whether your parents are wealthy or not, how hard was your upbringing and that sort of thing. Isn't that just a normal factor when you're juggling these things? Why do you call it systematic discrimination when you're talking about Asian-Americans?

MELCHIOR: I think it's important to note some of the evidence that came out this week. And one of them was an e-mail by an admission's officers who was talking about what kicks things toward what is getting you admitted or not admitted. Things like being low-income is a positive tip, things like having a parent who is low-income was a positive tip. And they explicitly said being Asian-American is a negative tip.

We also see this with universities being completely obsessed with this idea of micro aggressions. Yet, Asian-Americans are being rated as quiet, studios, for a university that favors things like an evanescent personality. This is a case where these softer traits are being used to have a bias against them.

GIGOT: Isn't it in Harvard's best interest -- I'm playing devil's advocate here -- to have diverse student body by race, economic background, piccolo players and quarterbacks?

HENNINGER: Sure, that's the ideal. But at the bottom of all this, Paul, is the Civil Rights Act of 1964, whose Title VI says, if you take federal money, you cannot discriminate on the basis of color, race or national origin. Asian-Americans qualify on all three scores. Over the years, as Jillian was just so clearly describing, the admission's process has become almost impossibly complex as they try to rate people on all sorts of criteria, whether there's legacies, athletes, gender, race, ethnicity, personality. But the fact remains that there's this law. And there's been the whole series of Supreme Court cases trying to figure out whether admission should be race neutral or, as Harvard clearly wants to do, be race conscious in admissions.

GIGOT: But if they can show the court, Bill, that race is just a factor, just one of many, not the decisive factor, and the Supreme Court has said, in somewhat ambiguous fashion, you can't make race the decisive factor, they might prevail?

MCGURN: They might, although, I think and Supreme Court rulings up to now on these kinds of cases, going back to Alan Baccy (ph) have been that kind of murky thing, because they say it can be a factor but they don't draw lines where. This might be harder. With the gap in SAT scores, it's so much more blatant. What Jillian was saying, when she talked about systemic, she meant that like the way to justify keeping Asians out is they get a universally score on likability or kindness. That seems a little bit arbitrary. The irony is we have an example here. Jillian's school, Hillsdale College, doesn't take government money and has its own admission and is color blind.

GIGOT: All right, thank you very much. This one is going to Supreme Court.

We have to take one more break. When we come back, "Hits & Misses" of the week.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

GIGOT: Time now for "Hits & Misses" of the week -- Jillian?

MELCHIOR: Universities have long had culture wars over Halloween costumes.  but this is spreading to K-12. The reason is that "Black Panther," the super hero movie, a bunch of kids are excited about getting costumes, including white children. "People" magazine covered this as problematic, same with "Good Housekeeping." But I'm all for it. If children are seeing heroism, courage and self-sacrifice in people races other than their own, it's a net win.

GIGOT: All right.

Allysia?

FINLEY: This is a hit to the San Francisco mayor who is opposing a referendum to double the city's gross receipts tax on businesses to fund homeless programs. She said that homelessness is not a problem we can solve by just writing more checks and we need to audit the money we're already spending. And this tax will drive businesses out of the city. It's nice to hear this from a progressive.

GIGOT: Dan?

HENNINGER: I'm giving a miss to America's public schools one more time.  This week the ACT college entrance people released their annual report.  And 35 percent of the people who took the test are not ready to do college- entry, math, English and science, and 40 percent could not pass college entry algebra course. America's employers are begging for skilled workers and the public schools just aren't getting the job done.

GIGOT: All right.

Thank you all.

That's it for this week's show. Thanks to my panel. Thanks to all of you for watching. I'm Paul Gigot. We hope to see you right here next week. 
 
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