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Shields and Lowry on Stakes for U.S. on Syria, Debating GOP Identity

August 23, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and National Review editor Rich Lowry join Judy Woodruff to discuss the week's top political news, including pressures for the U.S. to intervene in Syria, plus the president's plan for cutting college cost and tension over ideology and identity within the Republican party.


JUDY WOODRUFF: And to the analysis of Shields and Lowry. That is syndicated columnist Mark Shields and National Review editor Rich Lowry. He also is a contributor to FOX News. David Brooks is off tonight.

And, welcome, gentlemen.

RICH LOWRY:  Hi there.

MARK SHIELDS: Hey there, Judy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So a lot of news to talk about, but let’s start with Syria, Mark, this terrible chemical weapons attack very strongly linked in Damascus to the Assad regime.

How much pressure does this put on the Obama administration to do something?

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MARK SHIELDS: Well, I think the pressure — first of all, it’s different kinds of pressure.

There’s very little political pressure in this country.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You mean from the American people.

MARK SHIELDS: From the American people. There is very little appetite.

You can call it the Vietnam syndrome, call it the Iraqi syndrome, call it the Afghanistan syndrome. There is no appetite, no enthusiasm for Americans to go to war again in the Middle East to intervene. There really isn’t, and surprisingly little reaction to the tragedy, the human tragedy of 100,000 people being killed and a million people being homeless.

So, that is it. Political pressure, yes. There is some political pressure. But, absent the public pressure, I don’t think it really pushes the president. The president is — has some self-induced pressure, in the sense that he has — his own statements on this have been quite strong in the past.

I mean, Assad — Bashar has to go was one of his statements. If they use these weapons, it would be a red line they would cross, and we certainly can’t tolerate that.

So, I mean, in that sense, I think there is a pressure and there’s undoubtedly a personal pressure because he knows what’s going on.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Rich, we read the administration — at least there is vigorous debate going on inside the administration.

RICH LOWRY:  Right. Right.

And I agree with Mark — what Mark said. And I think the latter influence is ultimately going to be decisive, along with the international pressure, just because if this event goes without any reaction on the part of the United States, it will be a further erosion of this taboo since the end of World War I against the use of these kind of weapons and will really harm U.S. credibility, because the president has been so out there and so — has such strongly worded red lines.

So it wouldn’t surprise me if there is some sort of punitive, basically symbolic strike against government buildings or against airfields or something of that nature with standoff airpower or cruise missiles.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, that’s the question. What are the options for the administration? What can they do? Because they have been looking at this for a long time, Mark.

MARK SHIELDS: Well, intelligence, Judy, says that there — it would require 60,000 troops on the ground to eliminate the 12 depots where their chemical weapons are stored, they being the Syrians.

I don’t see that. I don’t see that happening. And I think that if there is military action — Judy, there is no more serious decision that any nation makes than going to war. And we have done it twice with no debate in the past 11 years in this country, really no serious public debate.

And I think this is the time. If we’re going to do this, there is time for really a full debate, not simply in the White House or in the administration, but in the country. I think the Congress has a responsibility. I think the press has a responsibility.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But even if it’s a sort of standoff action that Rich was just describing?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I mean, we have found in the past that, generally speaking, these don’t turn out well, that they involve eventually the spilling of more American blood and the spending of more American treasure, and a further erosion of the United States’ position in the world.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Why do you think that that’s — why do you think that’s more of a possibility?

RICH LOWRY:  I just think — I analogize it a little bit to Bill Clinton and the Balkans, where public sentiment when Bosnian War was burning so hot, there was zero domestic political pressure, really, but just the embarrassment when you’re the president of the United States and notionally the leader of the free world, when you’re appearing completely feckless and you’re saying things constantly and drawing red lines, and nothing is happening on the ground, and everyone ignores — ignoring you, just the internal logic of that forces your hand eventually.

Now, I don’t think we are going to do anything on the scale ultimately of what Clinton did in Bosnia. I think, if we do something, it’s going to be largely symbolic. And a huge limiting factor here is just nature of the opposition, because if you did more and really undermined the government, then you’re indirectly helping an opposition that, as currently constituted, we don’t have a lot of confidence in, to say the least.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And we know the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Dempsey, was quoted a saying I guess in a letter this month to a member of Congress that the administration can’t really support one of the opposition groups because they can’t be guaranteed they will be with the U.S. afterwards.

MARK SHIELDS: No. I mean, if you look at it, I mean, absent the human tragedy — and you can’t really look at it absent the human tragedy — at least I hope not — but this is the Battle of Stalingrad.

This is Hitler against Stalin, in the sense of…

JUDY WOODRUFF: You mean neither side…

MARK SHIELDS: There’s neither side that you can — you have got — when you have got al-Qaida on one side, and even just as equally loathsome people on the other side, I think it’s pretty tough to cheer and say, boy, there’s no question where virtue lies.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But you saw those pictures this week of those children, the victims, and then even the story Margaret — Rich, the interview Margaret did a few minutes ago with the woman from UNICEF, talking about the number of children suffering and displaced.

RICH LOWRY:  It’s horrifying. It’s just absolutely horrifying.

The problem is, this is not even a case where the enemy of my enemy is my friend. It’s the enemy of my enemy is my other enemy. And unless we can change the nature of the opposition — and I think we should have as many intelligence assets in — down there on the ground as we can, learning about them and hopefully maximally influencing them to try to go in a — you know, in a direction that makes them more trustworthy — it’s — we’re really kind of stuck.

And what I just outlined is, obviously, easier said than done.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, well, let’s bring it back here at home.

We know the president went on a road trip yesterday visiting several states in the Northeast talking about ways to bring down the high cost of college. He’s proposing changing, Mark, the way schools are rated that has to do with how much — how many low-income students a college brings in and how much they help them to pay for the cost of education.

Is this a set of proposals that is likely to get traction and go somewhere? What do you think?

MARK SHIELDS: No. No, I don’t think it is, Judy.

I think it’s a real problem. To be very frank, since 2001 in this country, the cost of a four-year college, a public university, room and board, tuition, has gone up 73 percent, 73 percent in 10 years, between 2001 and 2011.

At the same time, the median household income in this country has dropped by $3,400. So, I mean, is it a problem? Is the cost of college a problem? We say that more — we have to be competitive and an educated work force. Yes, it is.

But I think the rating of colleges — I mean, for example, just one little item, one of the factors is going to be not simply graduation rates, which I think would encourage colleges to accept children who are going to do better, come from more resources and more likely to finish, not take chances on kids who don’t come from privileged backgrounds or better-off backgrounds, but, secondly, Judy, is income afterwards.

So, you’re telling me that a college that graduates the best teachers in the world or the best social workers in the world is going to be penalized in this equation because their people don’t earn the same amount as a hedge fund manager. So, I mean, I think it’s tricky. I don’t see it getting great traction.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, to be fair, the president is talking about post — other sorts of post-secondary education, technical education as well.

What do you — how do you see this?

RICH LOWRY:  Yes. Well, I think it’s a very important issue to take on, because it’s a major problem. We have had this inflation at an extraordinary rate in tuition.

And my fear about the — grading the schools is a little bit the opposite of Mark’s. I think if you say graduation rates is going to be a key thing in your grade, they are going to say, OK, you want us to graduate more kids, we can do that and just sort of pass them through.

And the more fundamental problem — and, politically, just very treacherous to take on — is, I think the amount of student aid we have is funneled directly into these colleges and universities, and gives them every incentive just to capture that money and to progressively capture more of it by raising their tuition.

So, I think you would have to fundamentally rethink how all this works.


JUDY WOODRUFF: So, you’re saying it could make it worse? Is that what you’re saying, the cost of college?

RICH LOWRY:  I think if you’re not taking that problem on, you’re probably not dealing with it.

And there’s just so much of college I think needs to be rethought. And I give the president credit for mentioning some of these ideas, some of these innovations, like online learning and graduating kids quicker. But, if you look at the research, it shows students study less than they used to and teachers teach less than they used to at college. And these four-year institutions are only graduating, I think, about a third students in four years.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Gosh, I thought all students…


MARK SHIELDS: Well, I guess these kids don’t, not the way we did, Judy.


MARK SHIELDS: My earlier generation.

The other problem the president did address is $1.2 trillion cumulative in student debt and the average graduate carrying a burden of $26,000 upon graduation that they owe. That is a serious, serious problem, economically and vocationally, as to what that young graduate can do.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, something — it’s a big topic, but — and we have got just a few minutes, but I want to get the take from the two of you.

The Republican Party, Rich, a lot of discussion the last few weeks about whether there’s a serious split in the party. On the one hand, you have the governor of New Jersey, Chris Christie, very much in the traditional mainstream part of the party. Then you have got the senator from Texas Ted Cruz. You have got Senator Rand Paul from Kentucky on one end, and then you have got Lamar Alexander from Tennessee.

There just seems to be a lot more conversation than usual about whether the party is a big enough tent to hold all these different views.


JUDY WOODRUFF: How do you see it?

RICH LOWRY:  Well, I see it as basically a tension that goes back 50 years within the Republican Party, Taft-Eisenhower, Reagan-Ford, and on and on.

And it’s really — if you boil it down, you have Chris Christie saying, we need power, which — to effect our ideals and our principles, which, yes, you obviously do. And you have Rand Paul saying, we need principles, which, yes, of course you do.

So, I think the debate, it tends to be simplified, but it’s not an either/or one. It’s a both.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you’re saying what, that the — that…

RICH LOWRY:  You obviously needs principles, because without them you’re completely rudderless and passive as a party, but you also need to persuade people that your ideas are correct, such that you win elections, that you can effect your principles.

So, if you’re saying, oh, we’re just going to have principles, nothing’s ever going to happen, if you are saying, oh, we’re just going to seek power without any ideals or principles behind that, you’re not going to be very convincing to people and probably not gain power.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How do you see it?

MARK SHIELDS: Judy, when you think of yourself as the national governing parties, the Republicans did, and they lose five of the six national elections the popular vote, then they immediately go into this terrible wrench of introspection, and they divide into two camps, uneven camps.

There are the skins, who say, the reason we have lost is because we didn’t stick to our core principles. People saw that we didn’t really believe what we said. We have got to go back to them. And the shirts, on the other hand, including Chris Christie in this case, would say, no, no, the reason we lost is that we didn’t move into the middle more. We weren’t more practical. People didn’t look at us and say, boy, that’s where — those are problem-solvers.

So, that’s the camp. The Democrats did the same thing when they were out of power.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, you’re saying this is just one of those things…


MARK SHIELDS: I think it is.

And I think that Chris Christie, whatever else one thinks of him, is the only political figure in the country who gets favorable ratings from Democratic voters, Republican voters and independent voters.

RICH LOWRY:  But the skins will say, we nominated two shirts in a row.


MARK SHIELDS: That’s exactly…


RICH LOWRY:  That’s McCain and Romney, and look where that got us.

MARK SHIELDS: And for me to think of Mitt Romney as a…



MARK SHIELDS: … middle-roader is kind of a reach after watching that campaign, when you write off 47 percent of the people.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, there’s nothing — it’s not a reach to have the two of you on the program, Mark. I was reaching there.


MARK SHIELDS: You made it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Mark Shields, Rich Lowry, thank you both.

MARK SHIELDS: Thank you.

RICH LOWRY:  Thank you very much.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We appreciate it.