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Shields and Brooks on North Korean Threats, Palin’s Plans and DeLay Conviction

November 26, 2010 at 5:22 PM EST
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Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks dissect the week's top news in politics.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: And to the analysis of Shields and Brooks. That’s syndicated columnist Mark Shields, and New York Times columnist David Brooks, who joins us tonight from Philadelphia.

Gentlemen, thank you. Hope you both had a wonderful Thanksgiving.

MARK SHIELDS: I did. Thank you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Mark, to you first.

North Korea, a direct attack on the South just a few days ago. They’re still making warlike noise. Is — is there any option for the West, for the United States? What is — what can the U.S. do?

MARK SHIELDS: I don’t know what the U.S. can do, Judy. I think it’s important to remember this is the first time in 57 years, since the armistice that ended the Korean War that the — North Korea has fired on South Korean civilians.

I mean, that is how serious it is. There could be some argument about what happened last March with the sinking of the boat and the exact circumstances, but there is little argument about this. And virtually every major country in the world has condemned what North Korea has done, including the United States.

The one exception is China, I mean, which has the most influence over North Korea. It provides food and fuel. And it has been mute, passive. And I think that to stand by while this kind of bullying goes on — and that’s exactly what it is — the only reason anybody is interested in North Korea, beyond occasional humanitarian interests in the people who are suffering there, is the fact that they have nuclear weapons.

And I think that that’s how serious the situation is. And I think the options are limited.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, David, is the West helpless?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. You know, once a rogue nation gets nuclear weapons, there’s really not a lot you can do, because you never know how they’re going to react. And you really can’t challenge them, because they might use one of the things.

And the lesson here partly goes to Iran, that — how important it is to keep rogue nations from having nuclear weapons. And, secondly, it goes to the fact that we have much less control over some of these secret programs than we thought we did.

The other thing that happened in North Korea is that — the discovery of an enrichment process that was far, far more sophisticated than what we thought they had. And that is a sign that some of — the regime to control some of this stuff has some holes in it, even in a very closed economy.

But I think the core lesson is, don’t let rogue nations get nuclear weapons, because, once they do, they can pretty much do what they want.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And does that — does it make sense, Mark, then to wait? I mean, do we just wait for China, to see if they lean on the North, or…

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I think we can do — diplomatically, we can try and bring pressure on China. But we are borrowing 41 cents of every dollar we spend at this point, so we’re probably not in the strongest bargaining position.

But I think that China has to acknowledge that it has become, in the last few years, a dominant player in the world, and with commensurate responsibilities. And it’s got to meet those responsibilities. And it does have a special relationship with North Korea. And we will find out. I mean, if they abdicate, I don’t know what we can do.

But, if they abdicate, the world has to know that they have abdicated.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, David, while we’re — another international issue connected to nuclear issues, but different, and that is the New START nuclear weapons treaty that the U.S., the Obama administration, would like to get ratified with Russia.

Now, the one Republican senator the administration has been lobbying still holding that up, but is there any sign that Jon Kyl, the Republican senator from Arizona, could turn out to be helpful on this?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, from the administration’s perspective — what’s interesting to watch is the administration, their behavior toward Kyl, which has not — you know, they have been pretty confrontational on the issue as a whole. They have not been confrontational towards Jon Kyl.

They have been careful to say that he has got the best interests at heart, he is trying to keep the country safe. And so they are not picking a fight with him. And his line has been, we don’t have time.

And it’s always been a question, how much of it is a question of timing, getting this within the lame-duck session of Congress, and how much is it a negotiation over what he really cares about, which is modernizing the current nuclear facilities we have now?

And the administration is not ideologically opposed to modernize those facilities. They are just trying to strike a deal where Kyl gets what he wants on modernization, and then maybe Kyl will step back on ratification of the treaty.

The process of this negotiation, at least from the outside, has been very slow. I wouldn’t put my money on its ratification this year.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Mark, how much does it matter whether this treaty is ratified?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I think it does matter, Judy. I think it certainly matters with our relations with Russia. And it matters in the fact that 95 percent of all the nuclear weapons in the world — we were just talking about nuclear weapons — are held by the United States and Russia.

But it has come down to one man. And we can talk about the advice and consent of the Senate. It’s the advice and consent of one senator. He is — the Republicans have deferred to him as their spokesman, not Dick Lugar, who is the recognized authority on this, but Jon Kyl, the fifth most conservative man in the United States Senate.

And David’s right. The administration has been quite circumspect about expressing any criticism of him publicly. But, yet, he publicly states that he questions the — even though the administration has given him everything he wants on the modernization of nuclear weapons, he questions the sincerity and honesty of the administration on their commitments.

So, he is saying they need two weeks to debate it, which would be three times as long as we have taken for the last three nuclear treaties

JUDY WOODRUFF: Three times as long?

MARK SHIELDS: Three times as long as we have taken for the last three combined.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, while we are talking about one man, one woman, David, Sarah Palin, she has — not only has a new reality show out. She has a new book out. She is going to Iowa, I guess this weekend, and then again next week, important state for the presidential election.

What are we to make of where she is in the political firmament in the middle of all this?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, let’s not forget “Dancing With the Stars” and Bristol’s strong run there.

JUDY WOODRUFF: For sure.

DAVID BROOKS: Very impressive, I guess.

You know, the question with Palin has always been, is she on the government track or is she on the media track? Where is her career going? And, in the last six months, she’s headed a little more toward the governing track, suggested a little more that she wants to run for president.

I still fundamentally think she’s on the media track, wants to be a major media/political activist player, but will not run and will certainly not get the nomination. I base that on the fact that, to run for office, you have actually got to care about government, and those people don’t quit the governorship in the middle of your first term.

Second, she couldn’t even beat a write-in candidate in her own home state. She couldn’t beat Lisa Murkowski. That doesn’t suggest that she has tremendous political legs, even in her home — own home state.

And, then, when you look at her statements, the tweets, all the stuff that comes out of camp Palin, it has to do with the media or her slashing back at the media for this or that insult, not so much about government. So, I still think she is mostly a media player.

JUDY WOODRUFF: More of a media track than a political track?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, she certainly is a dominant figure, I mean, make no mistake about it. I mean, you mentioned the media reality show, but she is a bestselling author. She is a dominant — she dominates the debate.

I think it’s fair to say, in the campaign of 2010, she was a major, major force in selecting and backing candidates. Yes, she — the embarrassment in her home state, but, I mean, she really is the dominant female politician in the country and perhaps in the country’s recent history, I mean, as a serious political — presidential candidate.

She is liked by Republicans. The problem that she faces is that, when asked just before the election in the ABC News/Washington Post poll, do you think Sarah Palin, irrespective of how you feel toward her, is qualified to be president, only 27 percent of voters said yes, and 67 percent said no. And, most importantly of all, among independents, the swing group which they determined the last two elections, 23 percent thought she was qualified; 70 percent didn’t.

That is what she has got to address, is that seriousness of purpose and sort of a mastery of the issues.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, David, when — when she told Barbara Walters, I guess this week, that she thought she could beat President Obama two years from now, he was asked about that. And he said: I don’t pay much attention to her.

He was pretty low-key, but he said he respects her political skills. Does it matter how much — how he handles her right now?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, he — they, of course, would love it if she got the Republican nomination.

I assume Republican primary voters can read the polls that Mark referenced. And, even if she did run, I still think, even among Republican primary voters, they would say, we like her, but we don’t think she can win, and so we are not going to vote for her.

But I think Obama, the best thing for him is to have her trundle along there and maybe, if not win the nomination, control the Republican nomination, because, as Mark says, and as we saw in Delaware and Nevada and various other states, the sort of candidates she sponsors is not the kind that win over independents.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And when it comes to the president, Mark, the news out of the White House is that they are moving in David Plouffe, who ran the president’s campaign in 2008, more quickly — David Axelrod, senior adviser, going to Chicago.

MARK SHIELDS: Got to get your Davids straight. That’s right.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Are you seeing some strategy from the White House at this point?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I mean, obviously David Axelrod is going back to Chicago. I don’t think he has been thrilled and happy to be here in Washington. And David Plouffe is now coming from Washington to Chicago.

I don’t see strategy as much, Judy. I don’t think — it is a little early in the campaign to talk about a strategy. You have got to have a strategy that develops from reality. You can’t at this point run on peace and prosperity, on morning in America, if in fact we are still in a hot war in Afghanistan and unemployment is flirting with 10 percent.

I mean, so, the strategy will evolve. And I think the first hint we will get of it is in the State of the Union. But if I’m not mistaken, it’s the first time I can recall a candidate for reelection, a president — sitting president, taking his campaign back to his home state.

I mean, Bill Clinton ran as a challenger from Little Rock. Ronald Reagan ran as a challenger from Los Angeles. George Bush ran as a challenger from Austin. But when they ran their reelection campaigns, there was a recognition that, as incumbent president, so much of the campaign was really determined by their policy and decisions as a president, that they kept them close together. This is a change.

JUDY WOODRUFF: David, one other person I want to raise with the two of you, and that is Tom DeLay, the former House majority leader, who was riding high just a few years ago, and then, just this week, found guilty by a Texas jury of money-laundering, funneling corporate money through a political committee to state candidates in Texas.

Quite a story, a rise and a fall for this man.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. He was — or his career was what it was, which is, I never thought he had much principled reason to be in government, but he was interested in power. He was interested in building the Republican majority.

And he would do whatever he could to try to build that majority, including spending a lot of federal money to buy — try to buy seats, and also I guess manipulating the campaign finance laws. And so I can’t say I have a lot of sympathy with him.

I do have a few concerns about calling — breaking the campaign finance laws, which I guess he did, calling it money-laundering. That seems a little iffy to me.

And, second, I have to confess something which — you know, I’m not a big fan of Tom DeLay, but I think what Charlie Rangel did is worse, and Charlie Rangel is going to get to sit in the U.S. Congress, and DeLay is facing life imprisonment. Somehow, it seems a little unjust that those two crimes are back-to-back, at least the way things stand right now.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, we will wait and see what the sentence is.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes, I don’t — I will defend Charlie Rangel against Tom DeLay any day of the week. I mean, Charlie Rangel, yes, I mean, he did things that were wrong and broke the ethics of Congress on the question of not reporting full income on his taxes.

But Tom DeLay did take $190,000 in corporate contributions, a jury of 12 men good and true in Travis County, Texas, found after listening to three weeks of testimony, and in violation of a Texas law that has been on the books for 100 years, Judy, brought it up to Washington and the Republican National Committee, and then, miraculously, within the next — within a matter of hours, $190,000 showed up in Texas state legislative races that enabled the Republicans to win the statehouse.

So, I mean, the — Tom DeLay was an influential figure. He was responsible for Denny Hastert being speaker of the House. I mean, Tom DeLay backed him when Gingrich left. I mean, he was that strong.

John Boehner, ironically, was always opposed to Tom DeLay. So, it is kind of an interesting moment, a little irony.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Things come full circle. All right.

We — neither one of you is our opponent. We — you’re — we are on your side. You are on our side.

(LAUGHTER)

JUDY WOODRUFF: Mark Shields, David Brooks, thank you both.