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Shields and Gerson on Immigration Debate, Benghazi Hearings, Sanford’s Comeback

May 10, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson discuss the immigration reform bill's first day in Congress, Congressional hearings on the security leading up to the consulate attack in Benghazi and handling of the facts afterwards, as well as Mark Sanford's political victory in South Carolina.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And now to the analysis of Shields and Gerson. That is syndicated columnist Mark Shields and Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson. David Brooks will return next week.

Welcome, gentlemen. Let’s talk about immigration.

Mark, huge bill; 800 pages, 300 amendments started moving through the Senate yesterday. What do the prospects look like?

MARK SHIELDS: The prospects, Judy: it’s fragile. I mean, the 844 pages represents something we don’t see a lot of in Washington, which is compromise, consensus, pulling something together, both sides of the aisle, eight senators submerging their own high profiles and healthy egos for a work product.

And what we see are people who would like to sabotage those — that effort in the committee. Sen. Cruz of Texas has an amendment that anybody who has ever been in the United States illegally at any time cannot be eligible for citizenship.

That, of course, would preclude a six-year-old, who was brought to this country by his parents, joining the Marine Corps, going to Iraq, serving honorably, being wounded, and coming back and being ineligible.

But this is the sort of amendments that we’re going to see that will be intended, some to strengthen the bill, others, quite frankly — Mr. Sessions of Alabama, Mr. Grassley of Iowa — to sabotage the bill.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The last time they tried to do big immigration reform, it didn’t go anywhere.

What does it look like to you?

MICHAEL GERSON: Well, I agree. I mean, we have a comprehensive bill. There’s something for everyone not to like. That’s the nature of this kind of bill.

But I actually think it’s on a pretty good track. I don’t think we’re going to see big changes in the bill in a fairly partisan committee.

But Sen. Rubio, who’s the Republican leading this effort, believes that it’s likely to move to the right on the floor, that it would appeal to some undecided Republicans.

You need to look at people, bellwethers like Sen. Grassley, who is critical, but open; Rand Paul, who would, I think, have a lot of sway with the grassroots.

If Sen. Schumer, who’s leading the Democratic effort, can appeal to them and peel them off, I think you could get a large majority in the Senate and then it would put Speaker Boehner really on the spot, on whether he moves forward with a bill with Democratic support and passes something and goes into conference.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But you have this real interesting division among Republicans.

How does that affect what happens?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, in fairness, it’s not just Republicans. I mean, Pat Leahy, the president pro tem of the Senate, from Vermont, senior member of that body, has an amendment. And that amendment is that a gay person in this country, a citizen, can bring to this country a partner from a foreign country, just like a husband or wife is eligible to under existing law.

That is not something — it’s — appeals to Democrats in the sense of antidiscrimination and equity and justice. But it’s probably a game wrecker for the Republicans.

MICHAEL GERSON: If it passes.

MARK SHIELDS: It’s hard for me to believe that Marco Rubio could support legislation that included that. So it is on both sides, quite frankly. I mean, the Democrats are overwhelmingly for the legislation, as written, but this is the sort of amendment that could be complicating.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But, Michael, you do have this division, again, on the Republican side. You’ve got, on the one hand, former Sen. Jim DeMint now with The Heritage Foundation, putting out this study, talking about the cost of immigration reform. But his fellow Republican, Marco Rubio, is behind this.

MICHAEL GERSON: Well, the conservative movement is split on immigration, and that’s a huge improvement over 2007, when — you know, I remember those days. There was a huge conservative wave, which we really haven’t seen materialize.

Marco Rubio does not need to convert all his opponents. He just needs to assert credibly that there are two sides to this issue in the conservative movement; give enough Republicans the cover to vote for this.

The Heritage study that you mentioned actually contributes to his argument. This was a shoddy study, and there was an immediate, comprehensive response of a bunch of conservative, pro-immigration reform groups. They seem to have learned some of the lessons from 2007.

They’re more organized. They’re more aggressive. And so, you know, this is a feud within conservatism, but at least it’s not a rout like it was last time.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And one piece of it was the — part of the Heritage report that talked about lower IQs among individuals who were Hispanic and lingering for generations. Now I gather the person behind that has left the foundation.

MICHAEL GERSON: I don’t think that was in the report but it was in some of the research by one of the researchers.

MARK SHIELDS: That’s right, yes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But now that’s set aside and is no longer a distraction.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes, and I agree, Judy, that I think, even more significant, or as significant as the groups, were that leading Republican politicians — I mean, there are probably very few Republican — or Democratic politicians in the country — who have better feel for the political process than Haley Barbour, the former governor of Mississippi, and the former Republican national chairman.

He called the Heritage report a political document right out of the box. And so did Paul Ryan, the chairman of the House Budget Committee, and the chairman for vice president.

So I mean, he didn’t call it a political document, but he was critical of the Heritage report. So I think that there is more organized and emboldened conservative opposition.

But six years ago, it was John Cornyn of Texas, you’ll recall, up for reelection in 2008, who offered those poison pill amendments against President Bush’s and Ted Kennedy and John McCain’s immigration bill. I just point out that Sen. Cornyn is up for reelection next year as well.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Let’s talk about Benghazi.

Very much in the news the last few days, Michael. This is, of course, the outpost in Libya. It was overrun. The U.S. ambassador was killed along with three others. New information today about the State Department changing the so-called talking points that were going to be given to administration officials.

What — where is all this headed now?

MICHAEL GERSON: Well, it’s worth pointing out, at the outset, that, even at the worst, this is not Watergate. What we’re talking about is a cover-up — if there is a cover-up — of negligence and incompetence, not of criminality and I think that is the difference.

But this is an unfolding, rapidly moving problem for the administration. The testimony this week showed that the people who were closest to the crisis, that were in Libya, knew exactly what was happening, and they reported it up the chain of command.

People like Jonathan Carl of ABC reported this week that those talking points were changed dramatically by major players at the State Department and in the interdependent —

JUDY WOODRUFF: Which is not what the White House had said.

MICHAEL GERSON: Exactly, and that it ended up being much less accurate. And you also have the dynamic of David Petraeus in some of these stories that are coming out now, saying that he wasn’t happy about the changes that were made.

JUDY WOODRUFF: He was CIA director.

MICHAEL GERSON: He was the head of the CIA at the time. So it’s increasingly difficult for the administration just to say nothing to see here, move along.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Where do you see this headed?

MARK SHIELDS: I think it’s a legitimate investigation. I thought the hearings were authentic. For the first time, instead of the grand conspiracy theories we’ve heard hatched on the right, we did have real people, career diplomat, who alleges, testifies that he lost his job and was demoted and is now a desk jockey back here. He was the deputy chief of mission. The first person — the person that Ambassador Stevens was under attack called.

I mean, it was quite moving, it was quite emotional, his testimony, I felt. At the same time, Judy, the Republicans on the committee cheapen it. Thirty-two times by actual count they have mentioned Hillary Clinton. I mean, you can see — is there a legitimate inquiry here? Yes. Are they trying to turn it in — especially Darrell Issa, the chairman, and several of the other members, trying to turn it into a political gotcha show? Yes.

And I think it weakens the case. I think there’s a legitimate investigation to be held here, and I just wish it were being held by more senior, more thoughtful people.

MICHAEL GERSON: And I agree with that, by the way. The best way to undermine this argument is to overstate this argument. Republicans should be in a mode of gathering facts and following them where they lead. And that I think is their best strategy, as well as the right thing to do.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But the fact, Mark, the talking point being changed by the State Department, what …

MARK SHIELDS: I don’t think there’s any question it was an attempt, Judy, and they point out that it was ultimately issued by the CIA, the report was, and the talking points, so Gen. Petraeus has some explaining of his own to do.

But I don’t think there’s any question that it was a way of saying the advantage that Barack Obama had over the Republicans at that point in the campaign was the Republicans had squandered in the invasion, occupation, failed, of Iraq, they had squandered what had been their historical advantage on national security and foreign policy.

And this was a chance, I think, a vulnerability on that count for Obama and to dismiss or minimize the evolvement of al-Qaida, to minimize the threat of terrorism …

JUDY WOODRUFF: Didn’t want any references to terrorism.

MARK SHIELDS: I think that’s pretty obvious.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, let’s finally turn to right here at home, South Carolina politics. The former governor of the state who was involved in his own personal, shall we say, colorful episode where he went off with a mistress in South America, Mark Sanford has now come roaring back.

He won his congressional seat against a well-funded Democratic opponent. What does that say about American politics? What does it say about the Democrat?

MICHAEL GERSON: Well, they say we get the Congress we deserve, and if this is true in this case, then God help us. This is a case where — you know, this was a genuinely creepy circumstance. You know, during the campaign, he had his mistress meet his teenaged son at a public event in front of a crowd of people.


MICHAEL GERSON: You know, with cameras around. It was a very strange circumstance.


MICHAEL GERSON: This is really a case where everyone deserves grace, but grace takes time and healing and penance in most religious traditions. The philosopher and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer talked about cheap grace. This was cheap grace.


MARK SHIELDS: Well, I can’t argue with that. I’d simply point out, Judy, that Mark Sanford is a man of great consistency. He said I think it would be much better for the country if Bill Clinton resigns, I come from the business side, if you had a chairman or president in the business world doing what he did, he’d be gone.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Back during the impeachment.

MARK SHIELDS: That’s exactly right. He also stuck a knife into Bob Livingston, the Republican speaker-designate in the House, saying that he had to resign because he had lied to his wife. I just think it’s a great tribute to the compassion, decency of the Republican voters of South Carolina that they last chose Newt Gingrich in the presidential primary. So serial adultery is apparently not a disqualification. They are a forgiving and really compassionate people.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, we appreciate the compassion.

MARK SHIELDS: And he’s a jerk. He’s a jerk. I mean, what he did to his son — what he did to his son at that moment, as any parent, it’s just unforgivable what he did. I mean, introducing, this is your new stepmother, my girlfriend, I want to you to meet her in front of 12 television cameras and 1,000 people who he had never met before. It was unforgivable.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, on that note we will thank the two of you, Mark Shields, Michael Gerson. Thank you.

MARK SHIELDS: Good to be here.