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Shields and Brooks on Kerry’s Role in Syria Talks, Financial Crash Anniversary

September 13, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks join Judy Woodruff to discuss the week's top political news, including U.S. diplomatic efforts on Syria and John Kerry's influence as secretary of state, the lack of leverage for leading lawmakers among their own parties and the 2008 financial collapse.
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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.

So, welcome to the new format, gentlemen.

MARK SHIELDS: Thank you.

DAVID BROOKS: Scary.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So — scary.

What a difference a week makes. A proposal to get approval for a military strike, David, turns into an effort to get a peace deal. What do you expect is going to come out of these talks in Geneva?

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DAVID BROOKS: Yes, I’m a little worried there we’re entering a little diplomatic morass here. That’s in part because the armed response seems to be off the table.

The Congress clearly is in no need mood to approve this thing, and I think without congressional approval, even that leverage you have in the background of diplomatic talks is pretty much gone. So, the U.S. leverage is severely diminished, I think, and I think everybody sort of knows that, especially in the region.

And then when you get to the talks, we have some preliminary agreements to sit down, to do this and that, but there are a whole series of things that I think are troublesome. And so one of those things is Assad is beginning to make a few demands. If I give up my weapons, you have got to give me some things, like not arm the opposition. In other words, he wants a reward for using the weapons.

Who gets to go to the talks? Is Iran there? Does the opposition want to take any part? They’re really not happy at all. And so there’s a possibility — and maybe they will surprise me — but there’s a possibility this thing will just drag on and on and on, and we will effectively have no answer to what happened.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Drag on? Mark, how do you see it?

MARK SHIELDS: I don’t think it can, Judy.

I think that there has to be timetables. I think there has to be drop-dead dates. And that is the only way it’s going to work for Secretary Kerry and for the president. The two positions this week in town that one shouldn’t listen to is, A., this was part of a master plan on the part of the administration.

It was not. It’s been Saturday night at the Improv. But I think that they may very well have been lucky with Putin. But the other is that the threat of military force did not — wasn’t determinate. It was, the threat of the United States using military force, and I don’t think that can be removed from the equation.

And that’s what brought Putin. I was encouraged by Putin’s editorial in The New York Times, his op-ed page piece, because I think it shows he’s invested in this now. Some of his own stature and status and self-importance is involved in this being resolved.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And does that matter?

And, meanwhile, David, there’s talk that the president’s stature is diminished.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, well, I think both those things are true. I think Putin is loving this. That op-ed piece in The Times was a bit of an end zone dance.

He was enjoying it. He got to needle a lot of people in that thing. And the president is diminished. This has not been a good week for the president, a good couple of weeks for the president. It’s an issue he really — in my view, once the red line was crossed, he should have done something. People would have complained. We would be done with it.

But now it has really become central to his presidency, and really a no-win situation. I think I do disagree with Mark. I think the armed response really is off the table. And once that is off the table, then you can say, say, well, we’re going to set a deadline or else, but what is the or else? There is nowhere else.

MARK SHIELDS: I don’t think that can be explicit.

And there’s an old rule in town, Judy, that the difference between an ideologue and a pragmatist is an ideologue believes what is right works, and a pragmatist believes what works is right. And if this turns out well — and I think the biggest shortcoming and defect is that Assad remains in office, and that is a problem.

But if it does lead to a negotiated settlement of the Syrian civil war, I mean, remember this. There are 21 million people in Syria. Seven million of them are either refugees or dislocated. Imagine 100 million people in the United States being refugees out of our population or dislocated. It is a crisis, a humanitarian crisis of historic dimensions.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Does it matter, though, who is up or who is down if there can be some kind of solution, positive solution that comes out of this, either on the weapons or…

DAVID BROOKS: Well, if that happens, as I say, then Barack Obama will get another Nobel Peace Prize. They will give him three or four more.

But I’m just a little skeptical. Assad is winning this war. He’s winning the international war. I’m not sure he’s going to be in a mood to start compromising with the opposition, especially given the furious hatreds that are already there.

One of the interesting dynamics that is also out there is the emergence of John Kerry as a bit of an independent player. This has been a very centralized foreign policy process in this White House.

MARK SHIELDS: No.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVID BROOKS: Like everything else in this White House.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You mean independent of the White House?

DAVID BROOKS: Right. And so he’s got, I would say, more independence already than Hillary did. For all her strength of personality and strength of character, he’s sort of carved out a little course for himself in the midst of this.

And, you know, maybe he can lead in a slightly different direction, in part because the reputation of the president, frankly, in foreign policy is in a little dip.

MARK SHIELDS: There is a great advantage that John Kerry has. This is his last stand.

John Kerry, unlike Hillary, who at least was prospectively a presidential candidate, this is it for John Kerry. John Kerry’s career will be written and defined not simply by having been a presidential candidate and a senator from Massachusetts for some 30 years, but basically what he did as secretary of state. And I think the commitment and passion he has brought to it speaks for itself already.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And we hear he is going to Israel this weekend. He’s following up the talks with the Russians, and he’s been involved in trying bring peace to the Middle East between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

MARK SHIELDS: That’s right.

DAVID BROOKS: Another likely prospect.

(LAUGHTER)

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, let’s turn to something we have never discussed before, and that is the — Capitol Hill and the failure to come to some kind of an agreement, David, on the budget.

This week, the Republicans in the House tried — the leadership tried to bring a vote to the floor. It was the conservatives in their own party that said no. Where do things stand right now?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. If I was irrationally pessimistic about the Middle East, I’m irrationally optimistic about the budget thing.

I have no cause for my optimism. Somehow, I think we’re not going to have a budget shutdown. Nonetheless, what is going on in the House…

JUDY WOODRUFF: You mean government shutdown.

DAVID BROOKS: Government shutdown.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Yes.

DAVID BROOKS: What’s going on in the House, and a bit in the Senate, too, is what you might call the rise of Ted Cruz-ism.

And Ted Cruz, the senator from Canada through Texas, is basically not a legislator in the normal sense, doesn’t have an idea that he’s going to Congress to create coalitions, make alliances, and he is going to pass a lot of legislation. He’s going in more as a media protest person.

And a lot of the House Republicans are in the same mode. They’re not normal members of Congress. They’re not legislators. They want to stop things. And so they’re just being — they just want to obstruct.

And the second thing they’re doing, which is alarming a lot of Republicans, is they’re running against their own party. Ted Cruz is running against Republicans in the Senate. The House Republican Tea Party types are running against the Republican establishment. That’s how they’re raising money. That’s where they’re spending their money on ads.

And so they’re having a very obstructive role which is going on this week, and I think it’s going to make John Boehner’s life even more difficult.

MARK SHIELDS: If John Boehner wanted to pass a budget, he could do it. There are enough Democrats and Republicans in his own caucus.

The problem is, he’s terrorized by the — these people David’s talking about, the Tea Party people, the rule-or-ruin people, mostly ruin, because they’re not really interested in ruling. And what they’re facing, Judy, is the worst of all. These are people who live in a fantasy world. They wanted to repeal Obamacare.

Obamacare will never be repealed. Now they want to defund Obamacare. And there is not a single vote on the Democratic side in the Senate to bring it to the floor if it even passed the House. So, I mean, it’s a — Harry Reid said yesterday — and I think he likes John Boehner — he said very candidly, he said, I feel sorry for John Boehner.

That’s — there is probably nothing worse you can say to a speaker of the House. John Boehner, I think, has to face, can he lead? Because leadership means getting people to do that which they really don’t want to do. And I don’t know if these people — if in fact it does shut down — and I think there’s a lot better chance of it than David does…

JUDY WOODRUFF: You do?

MARK SHIELDS: … because these are people not living in reality.

Then it is going to be on the Republican hands. And it’s the one thing, the one thing that could change the equation for the 2014 House races. Right now, it looks like the deck is stacked for the Republicans in the way the districts are drawn. This could reshuffle the deck if they bring it down.

People like Mike Simpson of Idaho, the respected Republican House member, and Adam Kinzinger in Illinois are warning their — said, look, we can’t do this. We can’t pass it. We can’t close it down. We can’t close down the government. We’re one-sixth of the government, the House Republicans are.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, you’re saying it’s not a sideshow. It’s something that could turn everything upside-down.

MARK SHIELDS: Oh, I think it’s very real.

DAVID BROOKS: I somehow still think they will reach a last-minute deal, but I really have no evidence.

What Mark says is sort of persuasive.Two things that are interesting that are happening, especially being talked about this week. One, leadership in both bodies, the leadership’s inability to force any discipline. That’s partly because a lot of these people just are not interested in the committee assignments, the normal leverage the leadership has, in part because the earmarks are gone, some of the spending favors..

(CROSSTALK)

JUDY WOODRUFF: You’re talking about in both parties now? Just the Republicans?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, it’s more evident right now in the Republican Party, I would say.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes, it is.

DAVID BROOKS: And so the leadership can’t impose any discipline on a Ted Cruz. There’s nothing they can punish him with.

And, remember, what these people, Ted Cruz and some of the Tea Party people, their object is not to win Obamacare. Their object is to take over the Republican Party. So, they really are running against the Republicans. And for Ted Cruz, it’s potentially to get the nomination.

And taking this down, if it can mobilize enough Republicans so he can take over the party and become — really transform the party, then that becomes the object. And one little straw in the wind, the Heritage Foundation, a very prominent conservative think tank, is running against Republicans. And that’s part of the change that is going on here.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The Jim DeMint…

MARK SHIELDS: Jim DeMint.

DAVID BROOKS: Jim DeMint.

MARK SHIELDS: Sure, take over an anti-health care, anti-immigration party that has got the affection and loyalty of a diminishing number of American voters. That’s what — that seems to be — that’s why I say they’re living in a fantasy.

DAVID BROOKS: There are three or four counties in Mississippi they would carry.

MARK SHIELDS: That’s right.

(LAUGHTER)

JUDY WOODRUFF: OK, just a couple minutes left, but we are — this weekend is the anniversary, the fifth anniversary of the financial collapse, which we know what it did to this country, to the economy.

What’s the legacy of that, Mark, five years later?

MARK SHIELDS: The legacy, Judy, is that 100 percent of the economic growth, of the income growth, 100 percent, more than, has gone to the top 5 percent; 95 percent of the income growth in this country has gone to the top 1 percent.

If it — if more than 100 percent has gone to the top, that means the other 95 have fallen back. There is sitting out there a populist revolt waiting to be led. There is only one candidate who has tapped into it. And that was Elizabeth Warren. And she in 2012 got support and financial support from all around the country.

I will make a prediction. A wise person who has been through several presidential candidates — campaigns said to me today that, as Iraq was the defining issue between Democratic candidates in 2008, income inequality will be the defining and galvanizing issue among Democratic presidential candidates in 2016.

The Obama administration has really not responded to it in any way. And it’s there. There’s an anger and a fury, and it spills across party lines, but it’s particularly, keenly felt among Democrats.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. I’m sort of interested in this.

If you had told me that there would be a financial crisis centered on Wall Street, that there would be an oil spill in the Gulf caused by a big oil company, that you would have wage stagnations over decades and widening inequality, I would have said, we would be in an era of liberal progressive renaissance. The left would just be on the march.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Right.

DAVID BROOKS: And there is Elizabeth Warren, but I’m not sure I see the left on the march. And that’s I think because it’s still true that people distrust government.

And so they see the problems, but they don’t see solutions because they don’t think government is a viable solution — or a viable offering for the problem. So I think there will be a populist movement in the Democratic Party, with Elizabeth Warren, and others, but I’m not sure it will be as big as maybe Mark feels.

MARK SHIELDS: Bill de Blasio won the mayoral primary in New York…

JUDY WOODRUFF: New York City.

MARK SHIELDS: … swept across every demographic group by not running not for the poor — I mean, he did address the poor — the income gap — it was against the rich.

And that’s really — now, Democratic primary in New York City is not representative of the country, but I think there’s nothing more imitative than American politics. If it works, you will see other people following.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We may want to talk about this some more in the future.

(LAUGHTER)

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

DAVID BROOKS: Thank you.

MARK SHIELDS: Thank you, Judy.