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Marcus and Lowry Weigh Reactions to Georgia Crisis

August 15, 2008 at 6:20 PM EDT
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The Georgia-Russia conflict has put the foreign policy skills of Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama to the test. Analysts Ruth Marcus and Rich Lowry weigh the candidate responses and other political news of the week.

KWAME HOLMAN: Since the fighting between Russia and Georgia began, John McCain and Barack Obama have been quick to respond to developments. McCain spoke first last Friday, even before official White House reaction, and blamed Russia.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), Arizona: Russia should immediately and unconditionally cease its military operations and withdraw all forces from sovereign Georgian territory. What is most critical now is to avoid further confrontation between Russian and Georgian military forces. The consequences of Euro-Atlantic stability and security are grave.

KWAME HOLMAN: Obama speaking later that afternoon urged calm on both sides.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D), Illinois: I wholeheartedly condemn the violation of Georgia’s sovereignty. I think it is important at this point for all sides to show restraint and to stop this armed conflict.

Georgia’s territorial integrity needs to be preserved. And now is the time for direct talks between the various parties on behalf of stability.

KWAME HOLMAN: But on Monday, Obama sharpened his criticism of Russia, as its forces undertook bombing inside Georgia and Russian troops moved into another separatist enclave, Abkhazia. He spoke during his vacation in Hawaii.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA: No matter how this conflict started, Russia has escalated it well beyond the dispute over South Ossetia and — and has now violated the space of another country.

Russia has escalated its military campaign through strategic bombing and the movement of its ground forces into the heart of Georgia. There is no possible justification for these attacks.

I reiterate my call for Russia to stop its bombing campaign, to stop flights of Russian aircraft in Georgian airspace, and withdraw its ground forces from Georgia.

KWAME HOLMAN: On Tuesday at a town hall in Pennsylvania, McCain related a conversation he’d had with Georgia’s president, Mikheil Saakashvili.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN: And he wanted me to say thank you to you, to give you his heartfelt thanks for the support of the American people for this tiny, little democracy, far away from the United States of America. And I told him…

And I told him that I know I speak for every American when I say to him, “Today, we are all Georgians.”

KWAME HOLMAN: Wednesday brought a statement from Obama calling on Russia to comply with its cease-fire with Georgia, saying, “The situation is still unstable, and Russia must back up its commitment to stop its violence and violation of Georgia’s sovereignty with actions, not just words.”

“The United States should now join our European partners in direct high-level diplomacy with both Georgia and Russia to seek immediate implementation of a cease-fire and to achieve a lasting resolution to this crisis.”

While McCain reinforced his commitment to Georgia at an event in Michigan…

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN: I want to have a dialogue with the Russians. I want them to get out of Georgian territory as quickly as possible. And I am interested in good relations between the United States and Russia.

But in the 21st century, nations don’t invade other nations. And we will decide in subsequent days as what degree of provocation, and what — who was right and who was wrong. But you cannot justify the extent and the degree of the Russian intervention in Georgia. And so we need to obviously show solidarity.

KWAME HOLMAN: McCain also announced this week two of his highest profile supporters, Senators Lindsey Graham and Joe Lieberman, will go to Georgia on his behalf. Throughout the week, each candidate avoided criticizing the other’s statements on the conflict.

Their campaigns, however, have traded barbs over the issue of McCain foreign policy adviser Randy Scheunemann, who was a paid lobbyist for Georgia until March.

A 3 a.m. moment for candidates

Rich Lowry
National Review
Both the Bush administration and Barack Obama, ironically enough, were both more equivocal. And then by the end of the week, they were sounding more like John McCain. So McCain really led on this.

JIM LEHRER: And to the analysis of Marcus and Lowry, Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus, National Review editor Rich Lowry. Mark Shields and David Brooks are both off this evening.

Ruth, in general, how do you read the way McCain and Obama have reacted to the Georgia crisis?

RUTH MARCUS, Washington Post: Well, it's been very fascinating. It is, you know, sort of on-the-job, 3 a.m.-type moment. And I have to say that Senator McCain was out first, out front of both Senator Obama and President Bush, in terms of being very forceful, and sort of taking sides, and not being quite as evenhanded.

And that turned out to be correct. So I think he helped himself as a political matter, in terms of his response. And I think the Obama campaign to some extent has scrambled to catch up to that.

JIM LEHRER: What's your reading, Rich, in general?

RICH LOWRY, Editor, National Review: Exactly the same as that. I don't think it's quite a proverbial 3 a.m. moment, because I think most Americans, at the end of the day, don't care that much about Georgia. It's more like a...

JIM LEHRER: We've got to -- just explain what that is.

RICH LOWRY: That's a reference to the Hillary Clinton ad against Barack Obama saying how much more experienced she was, because she'd get up in the middle of the night and know how to handle this call.


RICH LOWRY: But it's more -- but it is a foreign policy -- you know, it's more like a 1 a.m. moment or a 12:30 moment.

But John McCain has been on to Vladimir Putin from the beginning. And he's warned for a long time about Russia's ambitions in the near abroad. So when this happened, he had exactly the right reaction.

And Ruth is right. He was out very harsh on Russia. And both the Bush administration and Barack Obama, ironically enough, were both more equivocal. And then by the end of the week, they were sounding more like John McCain. So McCain really led on this.

I would say there are two things he has to be a little careful about: one, seeming overly belligerent; and, two, milking it a little too much.

At times it seemed like he was going to move his campaign headquarters from Arlington to Tbilisi, you know, but it's been a good week for him.

RUTH MARCUS: Maybe Gori.

JIM LEHRER: Yes, maybe Gori.

RICH LOWRY: Even better.

JIM LEHRER: Has he gone too far, do you think, McCain?

RUTH MARCUS: Well, I do think there are the risks that Rich mentioned. There is the risk of looking like he is conducting somehow the country's foreign policy.

JIM LEHRER: By sending the two senators?

RUTH MARCUS: By sending the two senators. There is, in fact, precedent for that in previous campaigns. However, one could imagine that, if Senator Obama were sending his folks to Georgia and being on the phone several times a day, as we're told, with the Georgian president, that you'd hear quite a bit of yapping...

JIM LEHRER: Which McCain was, yes.

RUTH MARCUS: ... which Senator McCain was. Also, while Senator McCain said in the piece that we listened to, "We are all Georgians now," I'm not sure that the American people sort of share his quite zeal for Georgian democracy and a willingness to stand tall with the people of Georgia to the extent that he does.

They're a little bit worried about getting involved in another altercation in a place that, quite honestly, most of them had never paid any attention to and possibly never heard of before this week. And so bellicose, not necessarily good.

Trying to look evenhanded

Ruth Marcus
The Washington Post
I do think, for Senator Obama, any time people are reminded that we live in a dangerous world, that he doesn't have experience in foreign policy, that is in itself good news for Senator McCain.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree with that, that there is that danger, that, "Hey, wait a minute, we already have 150,000 troops here. We have this -- what are we talking about?"

RICH LOWRY: Yes, and that was important -- why it was important for McCain, in one of the clips we just heard, to say, "I want good relations with Russia." But, you know, we do have to be very firm here.

And, I mean, Russia, I think -- it's not 1968 anymore. And they might be a little shocked about that. You just can't invade a country and arrest their leadership and get away with it.

You know, I think they wanted those -- Abkhazia and South Ossetia -- but they also wanted to topple the Georgian government. And that hasn't happened, hasn't happened yet.

Instead, you know, Saakashvili is holed -- you know, was on CNN and other cable outlets constantly bashing the Russians in the harshest possible terms. So it's not clear how ultimately this is going to turn out.

But if the West is strong enough, I think Russia will pay a disproportionate price for getting two areas they basically had de facto control of from the beginning.

JIM LEHRER: So strong words might do the trick this time for the United States? All we have to do is talk tough?

RUTH MARCUS: Well, I think, you know, talking tough may help in this circumstance. And certainly you've seen this very odd situation in Russia where you're not entirely sure what their game plan is, or if they know what their game plan is, or if the forces who are in power actually are in agreement on what their game plans are.

I do think, to haul this back to politics...


RUTH MARCUS: ... in addition to Senator McCain's initial, I think, being out front and being proved correct, I do think, for Senator Obama, any time people are reminded that we live in a dangerous world, that he doesn't have experience in foreign policy, that is in itself good news for Senator McCain, except in the situation where you have -- if you had, God forbid, things going terribly in Iraq or elsewhere.

Other than that, playing on the foreign policy playing field is a good playing field for Senator McCain.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree with that?

RICH LOWRY: Yes, any foreign policy crisis that's not -- doesn't involve Iraq helps McCain, I think. It just tilts the playing field on the ground he wants to be on. And I think Iraq is a possible exception, just because it's been -- the war there has been so unpopular for so long.

JIM LEHRER: Yes. What about the McCain lobbyist who lobbied for Georgia and is now McCain's number-one foreign affairs adviser? Is that going to come up to bite McCain more, do you think?

RUTH MARCUS: So the Obama campaign hopes. I look at this on two different levels. On the substantive level, anybody who knows Senator McCain knows that he would have the same views on Georgia no matter what lobbyist came to talk to him. He feels this one in his bones. And he wasn't going to -- this is not a shift in position because some lobbyist came and whispered in his ear.

At the same time, the American people don't like lobbyists in general. They certainly don't like registered foreign-agent lobbyists for foreign governments.

And the fact that Randy Scheunemann has had two hats at various points, and still continues to have ties to the company that he lobbied for, that continues to lobby for the Georgians, as far as I understand, I think could be used to sort of throw up smoke for folks and is not helpful.

JIM LEHRER: Throw up smoke, Rich?

RICH LOWRY: Well, you should take whatever I say about this with a grain of salt, because I'm friendly with Randy Scheunemann.

I think the key point is this is the position McCain would have anyway, and everyone knows that. If you had a Russian lobbyist, and all of a sudden he was saying, "Well, you know what, I saw him into Putin's soul, too, and there's a guy we can deal with," then I'd be more worried.


Well, let's move to the real politics.

RUTH MARCUS: Realpolitik.

Clinton a big player in convention

Rich Lowry
National Review
This is not in her interest in any way to seem grudging or undermining Obama, because if then Obama does lose and Hillary wants to run next time around, she doesn't want half the Democratic Party blaming her for the loss.

JIM LEHRER: Yes, Rich, the Democratic convention, the decision to have a -- to go along with Hillary Clinton, to have a roll call vote, et cetera, two nights of Clinton. What do you think?

RICH LOWRY: It seems like an awful lot of Clinton to me. And I know the Obama people are saying that they didn't have a problem at all with having her name placed into nomination, but it's -- having two nights of Hillary and Bill, and a roll call vote, which I still -- I'm a little doubtful whether that will happen.

I think, if Hillary is smart, she'll dramatically on the floor say, "No, I don't want this vote. We all have to be unanimous behind Barack Obama. This election is too important."

JIM LEHRER: You mean it's a setup? Could be.

RICH LOWRY: Could be.

JIM LEHRER: That's a strong term.

RICH LOWRY: Could be. And I think Hillary would be -- given how much time the Clintons -- given how much time they have at the convention, it would really behoove her to really bend out of her way to at least seem gracious.

JIM LEHRER: What do you think, Ruth?

RUTH MARCUS: Well, if I were the Obama campaign, I might be a little bit more worried about the former president than the current senator.

Look, the Obama campaign has a little bit of a situation on its hands. It has a certain segment of Hillary Clinton voters who have not moved and have not moved -- they moved -- there was a group that moved immediately afterwards, but that's been pretty much static since July. And they need to be able to speak to those folks.

And one way to speak to those folks is through Hillary Clinton and Bill Clinton. And you had one Clinton wanted her night, another Clinton alone. So that moved President Clinton into the other night.

RICH LOWRY: His-and-her convention night.

RUTH MARCUS: To his-and-her convention nights. I do think the roll call issue is still evolving. But we will -- there's risks on both sides.

The risk for Senator Clinton is to have a roll call vote in which she comes up with fewer -- less support than one would have anticipated from the 18 million cracks in the glass ceiling.

The risk for Senator Obama is we all focus on the 25 percent or 30 percent of people who are not supporting him. I do think you will see some move by Senator Clinton to look and be gracious and supportive. For example, New York state might put Senator Obama over the top for the nomination.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree with Ruth, Rich, that there's a problem that these liberal Democrats who support Hillary Clinton might vote for McCain instead of Barack Obama if they don't get their moment in the sun at this convention?

RICH LOWRY: I'm just -- if that remains an enduring problem, I'm just not sure how much a convention -- a vote on the floor is going to take care of it. You know, if the -- I always thought that that would go away over time. And I still think it will over time, that these people are basically Democrats and they'll come home.

And the problem for Obama more is that people who have some of the same demographic characteristics, those Hillary voters in the primaries, you know, working class, not college-educated, white, who aren't Democrats, and if Obama had trouble getting that group who were Democrats and are likely to vote in a Democratic primary, how is he going to do among the ones who are independent or more Republican-leaning?

I think that's the real tough nut to crack for Obama. And a convention vote doesn't crack it for him.

JIM LEHRER: Is there a danger here for Hillary Clinton that she overdoes it? And forget the people in the hall, the people watching say, "What is this?" I mean, she's had her moment. Get on with it.

RUTH MARCUS: I'm not sure. I think the danger for her is not to appear adequately supportive of Senator Obama.


RUTH MARCUS: And I think she will -- she is aware of that danger, and she will appear to be his biggest cheerer. You know, Michelle Obama aside, she'll be next.

But we are going to see a little bit of, you know, possibly an introduction by Chelsea Clinton, possibly a video of Hillary Clinton. And, you know, the answer would be, "Well, she did get an enormous number of votes. This is due." But you do have to calibrate.

RICH LOWRY: Right, this is not in her interest in any way to seem grudging or undermining Obama, because if then Obama does lose and Hillary wants to run next time around, she doesn't want half the Democratic Party blaming her for the loss.

RUTH MARCUS: And she's out campaigning and...

John Edwards, a week later

Ruth Marcus
The Washington Post
I think the Democratic Party dodged a huge bullet here in that he easily could have emerged as -- certainly if Senator Obama hadn't run, as the alternative to Hillary Clinton. He could have won the nomination.

JIM LEHRER: All right, before we go, John Edwards, a week later, what are your thoughts, Ruth?

RUTH MARCUS: Oy. When will they ever learn? I think the Democratic Party dodged a huge bullet here in that he easily could have emerged as -- certainly if Senator Obama hadn't run, as the alternative to Hillary Clinton. He could have won the nomination.

He could have been -- if this had come out later, he could have been picked as a vice presidential candidate, potentially. Imagine where the Democratic Party would find itself now.

And I do not understand the number of people -- and may I just say, male people to somehow...

JIM LEHRER: You may.

RUTH MARCUS: ... nothing personal -- somehow convince themselves that what they do isn't going to come out and isn't -- in a world where character counts, and they've told us that character counts -- isn't relevant.

JIM LEHRER: Speaking for all the men in America, Rich, you're on.

RICH LOWRY: I feel like such a naif, because, when the National Enquirer first reported this, I said, "No way, you know, it can't be true. He's not that stupid. He's not -- you know, this day and age, you wouldn't do it."

And, of course, he did. And at least, well, we don't know how much he did, but it seems as though his confession...


RICH LOWRY: ... elements of it are unraveling. And so it's just an incredible act of selfishness, not just with regard to his family, but with regard to his political party.

You know, he finished second in Iowa. There was some chance -- the odds were against it -- that he could have won the Democratic nomination. And just imagine if that had happened.

JIM LEHRER: So it's a sigh of relief for Democrats and a sigh of remorse for Republicans? OK, thank you both very much. Good to see you both.


RICH LOWRY: Thank you.