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Shields and Marcus on the Voting Rights Ruling, Democracy and Upheaval in Egypt

July 5, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
New York Times columnist David Brooks and Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus join Judy Woodruff to discuss the Voting Rights Act, the tumultuous political shift in Egypt and the the Obama administration's delay on the mandate for employers to provide health insurance.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: And to the analysis of Brooks and Marcus. That is New York Times columnist David Brooks and Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus.

Mark Shields is off tonight.

Welcome to you both.

So, just — David, just picking up on Ray’s interview, how do you see the effect of the court rule on voting rights? What does it mean for minority voters?

DAVID BROOKS: I’m sort of struck, first of all — I have always been struck by this, but, in that interview, what harm was Section 4 doing, you know? Aside from — set aside the constitutional revisions. Just was it causing anybody any problems? I don’t think it was causing anybody any problems.

Giving the history of this country, you might as well be overprotective against racial acts. I think when you estimate how much actual effect it’s going have on actual voters, one, you have got a real issue which we perpetually deal with. How much potential racism is there in society that is just waiting for the chance to exercise itself?

And I confess, I don’t know the answer to that question. But we may be about to find out. But I will say, if any party does — and I think is this a lesson in the last section — if any party does voter suppression thinking it is going to help them politically, they’re foolish.

I think one of the things we learned from this last election is that the repulsion against voter suppression mobilizes people. And I think that’s one of the things that happened. So if you think you are going to take advantage of this to try to put some discriminatory laws or districts in place, I think you have got another thing coming, because it is going to end up biting you at the end.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How do you see the fallout?

RUTH MARCUS: Oh, well, I so totally agree with David.

I think maybe I should just say, OK, agreed, let’s move on, and we can find something to disagree about.

The practical impact of this is not what — the practical impact in 2013 is not what the practical impact would have been in 1965 or 1975 or 1985. But it is still huge, because it takes away this very effective tool, and leaves the cumbersome tool of litigating after the fact.

Anybody who remembers Bush v. Gore and what we went through then knows that you can’t unring the bell of an election or an unfairness. And so, yes, there is a real reason for somebody who — and you don’t have to be animated by racism, by the way. You could just be animated by your partisan self-interest.

But it could have a racist impact or a discriminatory impact. And so, yes, you would have to weigh the events that seem to have happened in the last election, where there was this surge of voting. But you can’t count on that every time. And so I think we are just going to see in any number of states a whittling away or a continuing stream of problems that we wouldn’t have seen absent this.

And I, for one, just thought the court just very improperly inserted itself in making a decision that was really up to Congress about whether we still needed this.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, we will leave it there, with the two of you kind of on the same side of this.

Let’s talk about Egypt, tumultuous events this week, David. Tonight, I’m looking at the wires, the demonstrations increasingly violent. They are now saying at least 30 people are dead as a result of these demonstrations. We just heard the Egyptian ambassador a little bit earlier talking to Margaret, saying, it wasn’t a coup, that, in effect, Morsi had it coming to him. What …

DAVID BROOKS: Yes.

Well, I think it was a coup and Morsi had it coming to him. So, it was a coup. I mean, the military is running Egypt for a long time. One of the interesting questions for us is, what do we want in our foreign policy? And I have sort of switched sides on this, I guess. I used to think, if we just have elections, that the elections will have a moderating effect on governments.

Even if you take radicals, especially throughout the Middle East, you take radicals, they have to pay attention to public opinion. They have to pick up the trash. They have to fix the potholes. The act of governing will moderate them. And, therefore, we just should insist on election after election and we should respect the results of every election.

I think the evidence from the Muslim Brotherhood, at least, is that if you have got a group which is really a radical, almost religious totalitarian group, the elections will not have a moderating influence. They will take advantage of elections in essence to end democracy.

And I think that is what they were slowly doing. They were undermining democracy to make democracy impossible. It was a self-negating election. And so I think what the coup people did was legitimate. And what all those millions of people on the street did is legitimate.

A friend of mine, Jeffrey Goldberg, had a good line. May be bad short term for democracy, good long term for progress.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So elections are not always good things?

RUTH MARCUS: Well, democracy is messy. We know it is messy here. And it’s even messier when democracy is new.

And so I find this to be an incredibly difficult issue, because you cannot cheer for people who seize power from a democratically elected government. On the other hand, you cannot cheer, for the reasons that David said, this democratically elected government, because it wasn’t governing in a democratic way.

And so the question is, going forward, which was the better course for Egypt? I think we don’t know. If things turn out the way the ambassador was talking about, with quick elections and a belief in the rule of law, yes, it could be better.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What — what about the Obama administration handling of this? Some are saying this week, David, that they should have anticipated this, that they’re caught looking like they were supporting Morsi, when they shouldn’t have been.

DAVID BROOKS: Right. Well, that’s true.

You know, they didn’t pay as close attention. They probably assumed the Morsi government was more stable than it really was.

I’m not sure I blame them. First of all, I don’t think it had any effect. So, I don’t think we did anything that caused anything to change in Egypt. But I do think it’s always important to remember — I was once in the State Department and somebody said to me, you have got to remember, in this building, we don’t really do foreign policy. We do foreign relations. We make relationships with people who are in power.

And so our ambassador there and probably our entire apparatus was building relationships with the Muslim Brotherhood, probably, you know, holding their nose a little, but building relationships. And as a result of those relationships, which were probably an effort to have some influence, they looked more friendly to the Muslim Brotherhood than probably they should have.

Our ambassador certainly gave a speech in which she seemed to dismiss protests, which she shouldn’t have done. And so we came out looking like we were on the forces of regression and reaction. And so that was a mistake. Did it have any effect? No.

But I do think the administration should be a lot more assertive in supporting. The only thing we can do is engage at the level of ideas, the moderates, the intellectuals, the writers, the activists who are over decades going to introduce more moderate values.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How do you see — how do you assess what the administration has been doing here?

RUTH MARCUS: Well, looking backwards, David is right, they have been late.

I have to — I would cut them a bunch of slack, because, first of all, the Mideast is like the Whac-A-Mole of foreign policy. There are so many different moles jumping up, getting …

JUDY WOODRUFF: Especially right now.

RUTH MARCUS: Yes, especially right now, that, you know, you turn your head for a second and you have got a problem.

Number two, and even more fundamentally, what were they going to do? They have got bad actors on both sides that they’re — that they can’t deal with. And, if they assert themselves, it’s just going to be ugly, imperialist, bullying Americans. They get in trouble — they are damned if they do and damned if they don’t on so many of these things.

I do think, looking forward, we are going to need to hear, either privately or publicly, word from the administration that they — that we must see quick elections and a real reinstitution of real democracy, not the kind of faux democracy or crumbling democracy that we were having from the Brotherhood. And they have a stick to go with that, or a carrot, which is the aid.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Which is the aid.

DAVID BROOKS: Can I just say, I wouldn’t mind if they played Whac-A-Mole, but they are hitting a dead otter.

RUTH MARCUS: Don’t — don’t take my metaphor and do better with it.

DAVID BROOKS: They’re doing the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, which really …

JUDY WOODRUFF: Where John Kerry was.

DAVID BROOKS: … is a no-hoper.

And, meanwhile, all these things are going on around the world. Syria is going on. Egypt is going on. The Arab spring or whatever we are going to call it these days is going on. And what do we think about that? That — and I — that’s a difficult problem. Believe me, I understand that.

But why are they obsessed with this — really a dead letter issue right now, something that is not going to be solved that has been just the “Wizard of Oz” fantasy of every secretary of state? It’s mystifying to me.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Waste of time for Kerry to be trying to do something about Israel-Palestine?

RUTH MARCUS: Well, I’m going to stick up for him. Yes, maybe it’s a dead otter. But it is an otter whose stench — I’m just going to keep going with this.

It’s an otter whose stench matters, because — because the Israeli-Palestinian problem is not the only thing that is at the root of the unrest in the Middle East, but until that is resolved, we are not going to have a stable and restful Middle East.

So if you thought that this was a moment to do it, I mean, it seems to me if you are the secretary of state, if you are the government of the United States, yes, there’s lots of moles popping up. You ought to be able to monitor a whole bunch of them. I think the harder problem for them wasn’t necessarily monitoring. It was that there is no good response.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, let’s talk about one other administration question and bringing it back home, and, David, that’s health care reform. The administration made some news this week. It announced it is going to delay the employer mandate for a year. The Republicans are rejoicing and saying, this is the nail in the coffin of health care reform.

Is it?

DAVID BROOKS: It is not the nail in the coffin.

There are bigger nails. There are other, bigger things that are wrong with health care. But the process of re-regulating or regulating a piece of American economy which is as big as the economy of France, 17 percent of the economy, that’s just — was bound to be an incredibly messy job.

And, sure enough, it’s turning out to be messy. The employer mandate by itself is sort of medium to small size. If it means they can’t do the individual mandate down the road, that’s a big problem. They have got other big problems which people in the health care field are extremely nervous about, the state exchanges, the relationship between the state exchanges and the federal exchanges, where the Republican governors don’t want to build exchanges, whether they get the young people who really should not be enrolling in this program because it is economically suicidal for them or a mistake for them, how they get those.

So, they have got a lot of big challenges down the road, of which this is a foothill.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Less than a minute.

 RUTH MARCUS: This is not the big challenge. David has identified some of the challenges, though I would argue about the economically suicidal piece.

And there’s just a report from Pew about how young people want insurance. I think this was overinterpreted. If you didn’t have the employer mandate, you would still have the law. The law — this actually takes a big distraction off the table temporarily. And every new law, especially of this magnitude — think back to the prescription drug plan — there’s all sorts of stories as it’s going into effect about how problematic and messy and chaotic it is.

Try to take away seniors’ prescription drug benefits now. It’s always chaos before the acceptance.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Always the darkest before the light.

Ruth Marcus — you are both the light.

Ruth Marcus, David Brooks, thank you both.