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Brooks and Marcus Discuss Obama’s National Security Address, Disaster Spending

May 24, 2013 at 6:00 PM EDT
New York Times columnist David Brooks and Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus discuss the week's top political news with Judy Woodruff, including President Barack Obama's speech on refining the fight against terrorism, controversies at the IRS and the Justice Department and the devastating tornadoes in Oklahoma.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: And to the analysis of Brooks and Marcus. That’s New York Times columnist David Brooks and Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus. Mark Shields is off today.

And whether they’re watching us on television or their laptop or their smartphone, we’re glad you’re here.

DAVID BROOKS: Or stone tablets.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So the president’s big speech yesterday on national security, he basically said that we need to redefine as a country our approach to the war on terror. In so many words, he said, if we don’t define it, it’s going to define us.

David, what …

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. I think redefine is a little strong. I think we’re fine.

We had a period of really intense expansion of the national security state in the early Bush years. By the middle of the Bush years, we’d begun to try to normalize things. And so they began to scale things back. They began to try to figure out, how can we get out of Guantanamo Bay?

And then things have been slowly returning to some sort of permanent normalcy since. And I think the speech the president gave this week was a very mature speech, a very serious speech, and moved us another step in the direction. Rhetorically, it was pretty big. Substantively, it was pretty uncertain and small, but I think a step in the right direction.

So things like getting — making at least a nod toward the idea of getting the drone policy out of the CIA and back in the Defense Department, where it belongs, trying to find a way to get rid of Guantanamo, adjusting our level of panic, how strongly we’re going to react to terror attacks, getting it more like we’re less scared out of our minds, and more like, OK, this is a permanent part of reality, I think it was a very positive step in that right direction. It was not a dramatic shift in substance.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Step in the right direction? Or were — some critics are saying it’s capitulation to the enemy.

RUTH MARCUS: Well, I wouldn’t say that. But I’m pretty much in line with what David said.

I would like to give the president credit for tackling this issue. It’s something he’s been stewing about and thinking about. He’s been agonizing about it. I’m all in favor of agonizing. I don’t think George W. Bush did enough agonizing about the legal footing of the war on terror and its future going forward.

That said, listening to the speech, reading it again, I — it strikes me that the president is in some ways a better law student than he is a president, by which I mean he’s terrific at spotting the issues. He will give you the argument. He will identify the issue. He will analyze it really well. He gives you the argument on this side. Then he gives the argument against.

What he doesn’t come up with — and David touched on this in saying that it was rhetorically big, but substantively small — he doesn’t come up with a solution. So, on Guantanamo, he talks about the legacy issue. Well — the legacy issue of people who can’t be safely released, but can’t be tried. Well, it’s been four-plus years of his presidency. That’s something we need to figure out the answer to. It’s hard.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you’re saying he should have supplied the answer or …

RUTH MARCUS: Well, I’m saying it’s great to — it’s important and useful to have the discussion, to educate the public.

But it’s frustrating on — we — there was movement, clarity, a little more clarity on drones, but, simply, what are we going to do in terms of oversight on drones? He raised the issue, but he didn’t answer it. What are we going to do about the Guantanamo legacy prisoners? He raised the issue, but didn’t answer it.

And there were, time after time, that kind of sort of sidestepping.

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I would say I sort of — I guess I’m going to be a tad more positive.

First, on the drones, I think he’s been reasonably responsible about the drones. When you’re faced — as president, you’re faced with a couple choices. If you say we know there’s terrorist X here, you can send in the Marines, which is like hundreds of people, which is terrible collateral damage. You can send in bombers, or you can use a drone. And it’s the least bad option.

Having some sort of outside review procedure, which he sort of nodded to, but — Ruth is right about this — did not define, I think that would be more positive. On Guantanamo, it’s just a terrible situation. All the evidence is tainted by how it was gathered. Nobody wants to take them. Congress is blocking it.

So it’s sort of a very difficult situation that’s landed in the Bush administration and now this lap, and no one has been able to think of a solution, as far as I could tell. The one positive thing I wish there were more of is going back — and now I’m going to sound like a Bushie — but going back and saying — he talked about the uncertainty of the Middle East.

It’s still true, I think, fundamentally that the only way out of this and the long-term answer is the promotion of democracy and moderation. And I wish we were a little more aggressive in using soft power to help the moderates, to help the democratic project, knowing that it’s going to take a couple generations, but a little more of that, I think, would be nice.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But he didn’t really get into that yesterday.

DAVID BROOKS: But I — he did talk about the instability of the Middle East. He gestured toward the Arab spring.

I still think that has got to be our — the core of our policy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But, essentially, David is saying there aren’t answers yet to some of these questions you’re raising.

RUTH MARCUS: There aren’t answers, but when you’re the president — I’m sorry to be uncharitable here — you need to do more than raise the issues. You need to start to sketch some of those answers.

I’m not saying — it was a step forward. But, for example, on drones, now we’re only going to — the guidelines say we’re only going to use them if there is a near certainty there won’t be civilian deaths. Well, the attorney general revealed that drones, which, I agree, are a — can be a very, very valuable tool — that the drones killed four Americans.

Three of them were not Americans that we targeted. So how do you — guidelines are nice. Ask the — but ask the press about guidelines in the AP investigation. Guidelines are only as good as the people who are implementing them.

JUDY WOODRUFF: That was the Yemen strike.

So let’s — one of the other things that has landed in the president’s lap, the IRS, a couple of developments this week. We learned that the woman who was overseeing decisions on what was tax-exempt and what wasn’t, she’s been put on administrative leave.

David, we also learned that the president’s chief of staff, Denis McDonough, knew about this, but decided not to tell the president.

DAVID BROOKS: Right.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Is this a bigger controversy, smaller?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I think it’s a little more appalling.

I think we have learned the IRS is not in the business of owning up to what they did and trying to say here’s how we will fix it. They’re more in the business of let’s try to shut down. And I guess they’re doing it for criminal — for fear of criminal prosecution or something. But they’re not exactly pointing toward a solution and they’re not exactly pointing to a fix.

They’re not exactly pointing to any sense of contrition. And so I do think we have a problem there. Was it a problem for Denis McDonough to not tell the president? I don’t think so, actually. There’s a lot of things. If you pick out this isolated thing, why didn’t he tell the president? Well, every day, Denis McDonough or whoever the chief of staff is probably learns a lot of things that he doesn’t tell the president, because the president has a limited amount of decision time.

And there are a lot of people who want to get a lot of things in front of him. So blocking information to the president is his job. And so I think this probably seems maybe the political radar didn’t go off. I think probably seemed like something the president didn’t need to worry about.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How do see that?

RUTH MARCUS: I see it a little bit differently.

I think we need to keep the IRS story in focus, which is this. Yes, the IRS actions were reprehensible. Heads should have rolled, and they did roll. There is no evidence that this was anything except for bottom-up incompetence and stupidity, abetted by management, incredibly bad management at the IRS.

There’s no evidence that anybody at Treasury, no less anybody at the White House, knew about any of this before the I.G. started investigating. So when this did go to the White House, though, they in their usual way managed to make their own mess of things, which is, they gave out information that wasn’t full and accurate information …

JUDY WOODRUFF: Oh, you mean what the press secretary, Jay Carney, said?

RUTH MARCUS: … about — with the press secretary — about who knew what when.

And then, if they did have the information early, why didn’t they do a better job, for goodness’ sakes, of responding quickly to this thing? Because I don’t think it was a lack of political radar. They knew this was going to be a big mess and they should have had the president out there more quickly responding to it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, you’re criticizing the way they handled it …

RUTH MARCUS: Yes. I …

JUDY WOODRUFF: … not so much the — what McDonough did or didn’t do in telling the president?

RUTH MARCUS: Yes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, is it — would do you think? Is it a bigger — is the scandal controversy growing? And Republicans are saying there’s still going to be more hearings, more investigations.

RUTH MARCUS: It’s continuing. I do not think it’s growing.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes.

RUTH MARCUS: Because I think this is all sideshow, the — not the IRS — just to be clear, not the IRS targeting itself. That’s outrageous, but who knew what at the White House and what was the decision-making about what to tell the president, I think it really goes to, they erred on the side of caution in not telling the president, because they didn’t deal with the what did the president know and when did they know it question.

It’s so going to continue, but I do not believe it’s going to mushroom into — to keep on with the Watergate — cancer on the presidency.

DAVID BROOKS: Right.

But I find it hard to believe, though, I should say, that they happened to pick the most anti-tax groups in America, and there wasn’t some prejudice. I feel — I don’t know if it was political targeting. I do think there was prejudice. As a scandal, I remain convinced the Justice Department attack on the press is a much — will balloon into a much bigger scandal.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, that’s what I wanted to ask you about, because we have learned more about how aggressive the Justice Department has been in going after reporters at FOX News, at AP.

But the president yesterday in his speech said, there needs to be limits, clear limits on how far an administration goes after journalists in pursuing leaks. So where …

DAVID BROOKS: Well, he might talk to his attorney general.

I really think what’s happened to Rosen at FOX News, what happened to AP is almost historically unprecedented and unconscionable.

I think it’s without limits, without any sense of legal responsibility, of invading someone’s private e-mail. And it’s partly we have this technology where it’s easier to trace people, because it’s all done on e-mail now, and you can look at it this two ways. OK, there’s going to be greater temptation for us to pry into every media reporter’s e-mail, so we have got to police ourselves.

We have got to have some self-distrust. Well, there’s no evidence of any self-distrust at the Justice Department. It’s just hog wild. And I think this scandal is vastly over the line. I don’t even say that as a reporter. I’m not a particularly open government kind of guy. But I think it’s truly offensive.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Does the finger point at the attorney general, at Eric Holder? What …

RUTH MARCUS: He’s recused from one of these, the AP one, not from the other.

It’s a classic example, right? There are Justice Department guidelines that, if they were followed carefully, should have stopped this. The richest part of the president’s speech was when he said, we need to make sure that we protect reporters and the press from government overreach.

It’s like, excuse me, sir. That’s your government you’re talking about. Now, just to be slightly fair to the president, it is very difficult, right, in a criminal investigation. You do not want the White House micromanaging. You don’t want them saying, this subpoena is OK and that subpoena is not OK.

But you do want them making clear what the general tenor of their relations with the media should be. And I do fault both him and his attorney general for allowing this.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes.

I mean, the press — when we — when anybody in the media reports on a story that’s somewhat based on leaks, it’s public. And if that’s going to be a crime, publicly reporting on leaks, then we just can’t function.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Final question, I want to ask both of you about Oklahoma, terrible tragedy this week with the deaths in Moore, and we just saw that story about other parts of the state.

They just get devastated every spring by these tornadoes, but some discussion this week, David, about — and Ruth — about, number one, whether communities have a responsibility to make sure there are shelters in public buildings, and also whether in federal aid, there should have to be an offset of any money that’s spent on disaster aid.

RUTH MARCUS: Well, we can’t predict what disasters there are going to be, but we can predict that there are going to be disasters.

And one of the things that we need do is, instead of needing to have emergency spending — and there’s — there are – Sen. Coburn is right. There are — this emergency spending becomes a way to slip in all sorts of extraneous things. And I say that with due sympathy for the folks of Hurricane Sandy, for these tornadoes.

But we need to have a sort of better functioning general fund that anticipates disaster spending and budgets for it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Less than …

DAVID BROOKS: And it’s crazy to worry about offsetting some tiny little bit of discretionary spending, when the entitlement spending is a giant wave.

And we perpetually spend our time worrying about little stuff, and not focusing on what’s actually causing the big debt problem. And this is just another example.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And that’s another topic for another whole discussion.

JUDY WOODRUFF: David Brooks, Ruth Marcus, thank you.

RUTH MARCUS: Thanks.

DAVID BROOKS: Thank you.