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Shields and Ponnuru Discuss Government Spending Showdown, Iranian Relations

September 27, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and Ramesh Ponnuru, senior editor at The National Review, join Judy Woodruff to discuss the week's top news, including the standoff in Congress over a federal spending bill, consequences of a government shutdown, warming U.S. relations with Iran's president and a UN breakthrough on Syria.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And to the analysis of Shields and Ponnuru. That is syndicated columnist Mark Shields and Ramesh Ponnuru. He’s senior editor at The National Review. David Brooks is off today.

Welcome, gentlemen, on this Friday night.

So, where are we? We heard Ed O’Keefe of The Washington Post tell us a few minutes ago, when it comes to this showdown on Capitol Hill, he said it’s a staring contest, neither side prepared to blink.

Mark, what do you make of all this?

MARK SHIELDS: Judy, it’s startling, in the sense that the last time that we had this sort of an event, in 1995-1996, really, with a Democratic president in the White House and Republican-controlled House and then Republican-controlled Senate, there were — now 233 Republican House members. Only 34 were there then.

And what happened was that Bob Dole had been running neck and neck with Bill Clinton in all the polls. He was the Republican Senate leader. And after that shutdown, with Republicans being blamed for shutting down the government because they wanted to cut Medicare, the public — Newt Gingrich became toxic politically. Bob Dole had to resign as Senate leader.

And the senior Republicans remember this. But the new ones, the firebrands, they come as true believers. They ran against Washington. They ran against the party establishment. And, my goodness, they’re going to go eyeball to eyeball.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Ramesh, are they prepared to shut down the government?

RAMESH PONNURU: You know, when you were saying it’s a staring contest and neither side is prepared to blink, I couldn’t help but think, and that’s just the Republicans.

The majority of Republicans in the House and the Senate really do not want to shut down.

What is fascinating here is, you have got a minority of the minority in our government that is trying to find a point of leverage to get its way, even though most House Republicans don’t agree with the strategy. Most Senate Republicans voted against Senator Cruz today.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, but who thinks it’s a successful strategy, that it’s going to lead to the president, the Senate changing their position on health care reform?

RAMESH PONNURU: There is a minority of the Republican Conference in the House that either believes this or is afraid not to be seen to believe this. And, as a result, you can’t have a Republican-only bill passed through the U.S. House.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Mark, given that, it’s a staring contest that leads to what?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, it leads to Ted Cruz in today’s Public Policy polling, national Republican voters, leading for 2016.

So there is an appeal here to a constituency. Is it working? Politics is the most imitative of all human art forms, and you will see more of this, rather than less. I mean, Ted Cruz didn’t get where he is today by waiting, going through the chairs at the party establishment, waiting for his chance to run for state auditor or something.

He took on the party establishment, and beat them in Texas. He came here. He wasn’t going to be the junior member for long. He has successfully alienated every Democrat in the Senate and probably a majority of Republicans at this point personally. And it doesn’t seem to bother him, and he’s doing pretty well in all the national surveys, and he’s certainly capable of raising money.

So, in the past, Judy, mavericks like Cruz, who have not been afraid of bringing the Senate grinding to a halt, Howard Metzenbaum, a liberal from Ohio, or Jesse Helms from North Carolina, they never thought about running for president. But I don’t think there’s any question that Ted Cruz is — national ambitions are there right now.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But, Ramesh, meanwhile, the man who is charged with figuring out a way to get something through the House of Representatives, Speaker John Boehner, what is his calculus at this point? He’s been pretty much going along with this very conservative group. You say it’s the minority of the minority, but he’s been doing what they wanted.

So where does he go from here?

RAMESH PONNURU: Well, I don’t know what he’s going to put on the floor, but I suspect that that’s something that I share with John Boehner right now.

I don’t think that the House leadership has any sense yet of what it can do to get out of this spot that it’s in.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, I guess my question is, does that — what does that body for the Republican Party, the fact that you’re at this kind a crossroads and you have this deep a division right down the middle?

RAMESH PONNURU: I think that we are going to continue to see a split in the Republican Party that, you know, for want of a better way of putting it, is sort of populist vs. the establishment.

And Ted Cruz is one of the leaders of this populist wing of the party. And the fact, as Mark was saying, that he’s got a lot of enemies among Washington, D.C.-based Republicans, I don’t think that bothers him at all.

MARK SHIELDS: Not at all.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, so, Mark, so no worry about the long-term ramifications of this?


Look, 2014 is, what, 12, 13 months away. That’s a six-year election. In a six-year election, when a party has held the White House for six years, they lose an average of 28 House seats and four Senate seats. All right? One of the reasons I believe that Mitch McConnell and John Cornyn broke from Ted Cruz on his issue was that they want to be majority leader.

They think they have got a real chance. And what could scramble this, if the Republicans are seen as the people who want to bring down government, who want to deprive grandma of her Social Security check, or Sergeant Billy O’Connell, Marine in Afghanistan, of his family’s paycheck.

If they’re seen that way, that could just absolutely reshuffle the deck for 2014 and put the Republicans on the defensive. So, there are political risks to this strategy. And the Democrats have the advantage of speaking right now with one voice. They have been a unified party.

Pelosi, Nancy Pelosi, and Harry Reid and the president, there’s very little daylight between them.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Is it inevitable that the Republicans are seen as the losers in this, if there is a shutdown, Ramesh?

RAMESH PONNURU: Well, there is a vigorous debate among Republicans on this.

But I think the history of this, in ’95-96, that’s exactly how it was seen, suggests that is how it would happen again. There is also, I think, just an instinctive sense on the part of the American public the Republicans are more anti-government party. If somebody shut down the government, that’s who they’re naturally going to be inclined to believe.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And then — so, if — but do we know whether the leadership believes that?

RAMESH PONNURU: I think that the — I think that’s absolutely what the House and Senate Republican leadership believe, and that’s why they want to avoid a shutdown.

But it’s not what each and every one of those Republican troops believe. They think 1996 went fine. Republicans didn’t lose the House in the ’96 election. They gained Senate seats in that election.

MARK SHIELDS: And Bill Clinton became the first Democrat since Franklin Roosevelt, 60 years earlier, to be reelected.

So — but Ramesh — Ramesh is right. The leadership of the party is really intimidated by the firebrands. I mean, I don’t know what John Boehner does. I don’t know what is going to come out of that caucus tomorrow. Perhaps a week, an extension for one week, a continuing resolution, might be the fallback position.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Mark, are Democrats privately cheering on the idea of a government shutdown?

MARK SHIELDS: Ramesh is right. The Republicans are seen as the anti-government party. The Democrats are seen as the government party, the party of government.

And if government just seems to be not working at all, it doesn’t — Democrats aren’t going to be covered with glory or gold coming out of this. I mean, there’s going to be a — I think, a disfavor and a distaste toward the whole Washington thing. Republicans might suffer more, but Democrats’ reputations are not going to be enhanced.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, if — now that we see there’s no progress being made here in Washington, we can look at New York, where the U.N. has been meeting this week, Ramesh.

We had Margaret Warner reporting on this earlier in the program. There does seem to be some sort of diplomatic opening between the president. The president announced he had a phone call today with the president of Iran.

Does this look like something serious could happen here?

RAMESH PONNURU: Well, something could happen. I just wouldn’t bet on something actually happening yet.

We have had signs in the past that there was going to be a thaw in U.S.-Iran relations. You may remember, back 20 years ago, everybody thought President Rafsanjani was this great new moderate hope, and nothing really came of that.

We still don’t know how sincere Rouhani, whether he’s just trying to run out the clock. And we also don’t know whether he can actually deliver his regime.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How do you see this?

MARK SHIELDS: I’m encouraged.

It’s the first time in 34 years the presidents of the two countries have talked. I don’t think there’s any question the sanctions have hurt. Estimates from the Treasury Department, it’s costing Iran five billion dollars a month.

And, present company excluded, a lot of neocons are kind of throwing cold water on this. And it just seems there is a peace scare abounding in Washington, that somehow …

JUDY WOODRUFF: Peace scare, what is that?

MARK SHIELDS: A peace scare, that this would …

JUDY WOODRUFF: A fear that peace is …

MARK SHIELDS: Somehow, that we need — we have to have a villain. Iran is now the villain. The Soviet Union played that role for a long time. Iraq did briefly, but Iran is it.

And if Iran ceased to be a villain, I mean, that would really kind of take the whole world framework of a lot of good thinkers on the right and just destroy it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But what makes you believe that this could lead to something real?

MARK SHIELDS: I think the sanctions are hurting.

I think — I’m encouraged. I think that this is a chance to bring some stability in a region that we have seen our own influence quite limited. Let’s be blunt about it. I mean, Iraq didn’t turn out the way we hoped. Afghanistan didn’t. Democracy has not produced flourishing democracies around.

I mean, this is a hope to bring to a region that lacks stability some stability. And I think there is a mutual self-interest at this point.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you also, Ramesh, may have some progress on the Syrian front. They’re about — the U.N. about to vote on a resolution about Syria’s chemical weapons. It remains to be seen exactly what develops there, but it’s a positive development so far.

Does this work to President Obama’s political advantage, if something — if you have even one of these two turn out to be a real breakthrough?

RAMESH PONNURU: That’s right, if. Then I think it does help, and the president has, I think, been suffering over the last couple of months, particularly on the foreign policy questions, in his polling.

But with Syria, again, there are some reasons for skepticism, that — does this resolution actually have teeth? And you will note that it doesn’t even actually call the regime to account for using chemical weapons.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But there is language in there about consequences, isn’t there?

RAMESH PONNURU: But, again, the question is enforceability. And, again, as with anything at the U.N., what are the Russians going to do if it comes to enforcing?

MARK SHIELDS: The glass is more than half-full here.

This is the Security Council moving. It isn’t perfect. It isn’t ideal, but it is real progress. The one reservation I have is, it leaves in power the status quo in Syria. But we have learned over the last week, Judy, that the alternative is not terribly appealing in itself.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Mark, what about this question, what I was just asking Ramesh about? If even one of these bears fruit, does that — does that — what difference will that make for the president?


JUDY WOODRUFF: He’s had a rough spell lately.

MARK SHIELDS: He’s had a real rough patch.

The right direction/wrong track number, people think the country is headed very much in the wrong direction. His own job rating is down. I think this would — I mean, recall when the president brought Osama bin Laden to his — to face his maker, how that was seen as a great achievement, and his own numbers went up and enhanced his leadership.

I don’t think there’s any question that if either one of these, let alone both, work out, that it would be very much to his advantage.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We are going to leave it there.

Mark Shields, Ramesh Ponnuru, thank you.

MARK SHIELDS: Thank you, Judy.