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Shields and Brooks on Obama as reluctant warrior, sacrificing immigration reform before midterms

September 12, 2014 at 6:41 PM EST
Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks join Judy Woodruff to discuss the week’s news, including how lawmakers are reacting to President Obama’s airstrike plan against the Islamic State, the president’s decision to delay executive action on immigration reform and a planned visit to Iowa for Hillary Clinton.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: A major presidential address to the nation and calls for congressional backing to take on the Islamic State. It was another full week of news.

And we turn to the analysis of Shields and Brooks. That’s syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks.

Welcome, gentlemen.

So, we led the program tonight with Bill Clinton. He is supporting, he said, President Obama’s plan to degrade and destroy ISIS.

Mark, he said it won’t be easy or quick, but he thinks it will be successful. But I guess my question to you is, two days after the president rolled it out, you said it needs a healthy debate. Is it getting that kind of debate right now?

MARK SHIELDS: No, it isn’t.

If John Kennedy were writing a postscript of profiles in courage, he wouldn’t get any material on Capitol Hill, with few inconspicuous consumptions — exceptions. Tim Kaine , Democratic senator from Virginia, and several others arguing that the Congress should accept this responsibility.

The irony is, the Republican House members are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to sue the president for excessive abuse of power, and here’s the one power that is defined, delineated by the Constitution that resides with the Congress to declare war. And they have abdicated that responsibility, or appear to be, want to get through the election.

Leaders now see their responsibility as to avoid difficult votes for their members, whether it’s the leadership, makes no — Mitch McConnell being the exception. He’s calling on the Republicans in the Senate for a vote. But Harry Reid doesn’t want one, and I don’t think see that John Boehner does either.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Where do you come down on that?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes.

No, I think in the House and the Senate, we’re probably not going to get a big debate. We will have a debate about the appropriations, about some of the backdoor funding mechanisms. It strikes me what’s interesting is it seems to me the Democrats are a little more divided on this. It’s a more troublesome issue for the Democrats than it is for the Republicans.

The Republicans are more united. Rand Paul has come out more or less in favor of this. So the — what had been a more isolationist fringe, or however you want to say it, has — that part of the Republican Party has merged and looks more like a conventional Republican Party, the national security party.

The Democrats are the divided ones. And Steny Hoyer, the Democratic leading congressional official, wants to push it beyond the election. But we are having a big national debate about it. People are talking about it on the streets. And what struck me is how hard it is to talk about it, because I think most people think you have no choice but to somehow — you can’t allow a genocidal caliphate in the Middle East.

But how you do it is what has everybody scratching their heads. What kind of coalition are we going to have?  What happens if the Iraqi army is not successful on the ground?  What happens if the Free Syrian Army, the moderate Syrian opposition, is not super successful?

So, very quickly, I have just noticed the tenor of the debate has shifted from ends for the most part to means. And people are sort of up in the air, because it’s not quite clear exactly how that is going to work.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Mark, the president has asked Congress to support the training of Syrian rebels, assuming they identify these moderate Syrian rebels.

MARK SHIELDS: That’s right.

They have got to be — somebody has got to find out who the moderates are.

DAVID BROOKS: They have got to be for Sam Nunn.  They have got to be…

MARK SHIELDS: Is there a test here, I mean, the Lincoln Chafee series?

Yes. No, Judy, the Western — United States — the United States military, western military, has shown its ability, its capacity to come in and dominate the battlefield. But the idea of establishing order, security and peaceful government in its wake after that has eluded us.

And there’s no way in the world — the question of coalition, who are these people?  Where are they?  Who are the troops who are going to be there to guarantee stability, order and some sense of justice in the areas?

You can’t do that with airstrikes. I mean, airstrikes are wonderful. They’re antiseptic. They’re at a distance. The possibility of your own casualties is finite. But they don’t occupy. You can’t occupy a nation or bring order and stability by airstrikes. So who are people on the ground?  Who is the coalition?  Where are the troops coming from?

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you’re saying he’s the reluctant warrior, so can the reluctant warrior lead in a situation where we don’t know what the endgame…

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, I think so.

I strikes me a Syrian moderate is anybody against beheading in Syria. That makes you a moderate. But I do think he is a reluctant warrior. He doesn’t want to be there. But that has some advantages. It has the advantage he’s not going to be carried away by his own righteousness.

He’s not going to want to dominate the ground. He — it is going to make him skeptical of everything that generals bring him because he’s not gung-ho. And it’s going to mean he is going to be realistic about our goals.

And turning Syria into a great country is not one of our goals. It’s — and turning Iraq into a viable country is sort of one of our goals. He’s more interested in keeping Iraq stable than whatever happens in Syria. The main goal is degrading these guys, truly one of the most evil manifestation of human life on earth.

And so simply — our goal is destructive. Our goal is not positive. It’s not make the Middle East a better place. Our goal is make sure the Middle East doesn’t get any worse. And so I do think, with that limited goal, with some buy-in from the Sunni tribes who have done it before, they have defeated this kind of army before. It should be possible to degrade this group.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Turn to something very different, politics. We talked to Bill Clinton about it. He’s going to Iowa this weekend, Mark, with former Secretary Hillary Clinton, who a lot of people think is going to run for president in 2016.

She has not been back there since she ran for president in 2008. Is this something you’re going to be watching?  Is it a big deal?  What does it say?

MARK SHIELDS: It’s a major deal, her first time back, obviously, in Iowa.

Two things, Judy. Part of it, following the earlier discussion, Iowa Democrats are among the most dovish Democrats in the country. The Iowa caucuses were created in 1968. The architect of them was a fellow named Alan Barren (ph), a very political — political genius, an anti-war Democrat, so that anti-war Democrats could express their opposition to Lyndon Johnson’s Vietnam policy.

So Hillary Clinton, who is now sort of priding herself on Barack Obama coming over to her position and arming the Syrians and her toughness, that will be an interesting fit. More interesting to me is how she handles Bill Clinton.

Bill Clinton — think about this. We have had one balanced budget in 45 years, during Bill Clinton’s presidency, several balanced budgets, leaving a surplus. We had the lowest unemployment in the history of the United States among African-Americans and Latinos. We had the lowest unemployment rate in 30 years under Bill Clinton.

There were 22 million jobs created in Bill Clinton’s eight years, which is more than were created in the 20 years of Ronald Reagan’s eight and the Bushes’ 12. It’s an amazing record. So there’s a temptation on her part to run a nostalgia back-to-the-future campaign, I think, because things were better.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you’re saying that’s a good idea, or…

MARK SHIELDS: No, I don’t think you can. I think you can run — American presidential campaigns are about the future.

And I don’t think you can run a nostalgic campaign. But she wants to remind people of just how good things were when Bill Clinton was there, even though he was there — it will be 16 years later.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes.

I’m struck by the same things Mark is, first that she has emerged, and even more so since she left the secretary of state job, as possibly the most hawkish Democrat, certainly hawkish presidential possibility. And she’s going to be starting in a state that is notoriously unwelcome for that.

And so how does she play that?  How forward-leaning is she in talking about that?  And, of course, it’s worth remembering she lost there. And if you remember the tears she shed, the way her voice quivered, it happened after Iowa. She was in New Hampshire at the time, but it’s a moment of — it was a scene of maximum vulnerability for her. And one expects of the Clinton mind it will be a scene of maximum effort this time.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And that raises — broaden it out. I asked President Clinton about the Senate races. And he finally — at first, he said he didn’t know, and then he said, no, I think the Democrats — Mark, he said, I think the Democrats have a slightly better than 50/50 chance of holding onto the Senate.

MARK SHIELDS: He went on to specifically analyze the Mike Ross against Asa Hutchinson…

JUDY WOODRUFF: He went from one race after another.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes. No, the problem, Judy, the Democrats are not in an encouraging environment right now.

Of the seven key races, six of them, the Democrats, for control of the Senate, are being run in red states that Mitt Romney carried by more than 14 points. You have got a president who’s at the lowest job rating in his presidency right now at 40 percent.

And you have people feeling the country is headed the wrong direction by a 2-1 margin, worse than it was in 1994, when the Democrats got swept, or 2006, when George Bush was routed. So it’s that.

 

And add to that the interest, enthusiasm factor is higher among Republicans than it is among Democrats. You know, it’s not an encouraging picture. So the Democrats, the Mark Pryors, the Mark Udalls, the Mark Begiches are all trying to make a one-on-one race against the candidate.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Marks. It’s a good name.

MARK SHIELDS: They don’t want to mention Barack Obama.

And the Republicans all want to say, my candidate — my opposition, my opponent went to Washington and voted 95 percent of the time with Barack Obama and forgot the people here in Centerville.

DAVID BROOKS: I had forgotten about all the Marks. It’s a “Marksist” party.

MARK SHIELDS: It is.

(LAUGHTER)

MARK SHIELDS: It is.

DAVID BROOKS: But it’s funny how the barometric pressure, at least here among those of us who watch the polls, is a couple of months ago, it was all — it looks like a great Republican year.

Then the tide shifted. It seems the polls were shifting on the Democratic side, Democrats doing pretty well in Georgia and North Carolina hanging in there. I would say in the last two weeks, if you look at the polls, especially as they have gone to a tighter screen where they only look at the likely voters, it has shifted a little more toward the Republican side again.

The Democrats are still doing well in Georgia and some other places, but the momentum feels, at least at the moment, among those who pay super close attention to this, it feels back again a little more on the Republican side.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, Clinton is sure saying — President Clinton is saying he’s going to be out there campaigning through the fall. He’s getting more invitations than President Obama is to campaign.

MARK SHIELDS: He is. He is. He is the most popular political figure in the country. It’s just remarkable.

JUDY WOODRUFF: One last thing I want to ask you both about, the announcement by the White House. They did confirm that the president is not going to announce any sort of executive action on immigration until after this election.

Is this good for the president, good for the Democrats, David, or not?

DAVID BROOKS: In the short term, yes.

So it’s a short-term/long-term thing. In the short term, it means a lot of Democrats running in red states will have a little easier time. They won’t have to confront that issue. Over the long term, I understood the Democratic strategists who said, well, let’s sacrifice the short term. Let’s really lock in some loyalty among Latino groups. And that will just benefit us so much more in the long term.

So, they have taken a hit among Latino groups among poll standing. president Obama’s poll standing among Hispanics is down. There’s certainly a lot of anger from the groups who thought they were promised this. And so they have made that long-term sacrifice for a short-term play.

MARK SHIELDS: I think some Democrats view this long term.

1994, Judy, when the Democrats were routed and the Republicans won the Congress for the first time in 40 years, they won the House, after that, the postscript, the narrative was the Democrats had lost because of their vote for gun control. And gun control became toxic at that point. I think Democrats are concerned that, in 2014, if they did lose and immigration was front and center, that it would kill prospects for immigration in the future.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, we are going to — we will watching, because you’re right. The pro-immigrant groups are really angry right now at the president.

MARK SHIELDS: That’s right.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Mark Shields, David Brooks, we’re not angry at either one of you. Come back next week.

MARK SHIELDS: Thank you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Thank you.

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