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Shields and Brooks on strengthening Russia sanctions, midterm election math

March 21, 2014 at 6:26 PM EST
Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks join Judy Woodruff to discuss the week’s news, including how President Obama’s response to the Crimea annexation will be evaluated, the latest media push to promote the health care law, the outlook for midterm elections and remembering former DNC chair Bob Strauss.
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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.

Welcome, gentlemen.

So, Ukraine, it is again the story on the minds of so many right now.

David, the president, now two rounds of sanctions against Vladimir Putin, the Russians, working with the allies to try to do something. What is the view now of how the president is handling this?

DAVID BROOKS: Doing a good job, has been forceful, started out maybe a little too modest, sanctions on just a few people, ratcheting it up, ratcheting it up.

So, I think he’s been quite as forceful as you could be, given the constraints he faces with our allies in Europe. He’s certainly been aggressive. He certainly understands the stakes. He certainly understands aggressively that Putin is not just — it’s not just about Crimea; it’s not even just about Ukraine. It’s about the post-Cold War order.

Do we have a situation where Russia can declare spheres of influence, can rewrite borders, can mess with Iran in our efforts to not allow a nuclear Iran? This is sort of a radiating thing where Putin is just an agent of disorder. And I think Obama understands that and has ratcheted up the pressure.

The only way I would fault him, a lot of what we’re dealing with here is the psychology of fear. Are we causing Putin to fear us? And by ratcheting it up, I mean, the early response to our limited sanctions was one of contempt. And now we’re getting a little more serious. But we haven’t shocked him with a little surge of fear, and Putin responds to fear.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How do you read what the president is doing? How do you hear — what do you hear and what do you think?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I don’t think there is in this country a great partisan divide.

I mean, I think there’s posturing and posing. There’s a lot of — been criticism of the president, which has been a little inconsistent and contradictory. He’s gone from being a megalomaniacal despot and dictator to being a weak-kneed, lily-livered critic — now is the criticism of Republicans publicly.

But I don’t think, in a policy sense, Judy, there’s any real major disagreement about what the United States can do and what our options are. Nobody is talking about military action. The president did take that off the table in an interview with a domestic television station.

But I do think that the sanctions — in order for the sanctions to work, they have to be felt on both sides. And it’s not only going to be discomfort and inconvenience and worse for the Russians and for Putin and his particular group, but it’s going to have to be felt in the West as well.

That’s how — that’s how sanctions do. They’re felt by those who…

JUDY WOODRUFF: … the kind of sanctions level…

MARK SHIELDS: The people who impose them are also inconveniencing themselves. And I think that will be a test.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And this is one of those occasions when you start to question, I think, David, is — can a president — I mean, this is a president who’s struggling right now, public opinion, low favorability ratings, in the low 40s.

Is foreign policy something typically that a president can use to lift, or does it hurt him? Can it hurt him by the way he handles this?

DAVID BROOKS: It can’t help him. It can hurt him. Welcome to the White House.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVID BROOKS:  So, right now, the country doesn’t want to be involved in Ukraine. The country is not particularly paying attention to Ukraine, except for on this program.

But — I hope — but if he messes it up, or if we in the West mess it up, and we really do have a much more disorderly world here, then it could seriously hurt him. So, you know, foreign policy’s the responsibility of elites. And that’s what they do.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes, Judy, there was a period — we have to understand, the end of the Cold War was a moment, a period of unalloyed joy in the West, particularly the United States.

Our values prevailed. Our nemesis, our — the villain of the piece dissolved, the Soviet Union. And Putin and many Russians, this is an enormous sore spot. I mean, he has called the greatest catastrophe of the 20th century, he Putin, the breakup of the Soviet Union.

So we had a unipolar world, in which the United States just stood sort of by itself. It was dealt a serious blow by the United States going into Iraq and Afghanistan, neither of which has worked out as its architects expected it to.

And I think Barack Obama has brought to it far more collaborative approach, which sometimes is not dramatic, but that’s — as David was describing it, bringing the allies along is what this is all about. And it all comes back to NATO. NATO’s Article 5 is, an attack on any one of us is an attack on all of us. And so that’s how serious it is.

DAVID BROOKS:  I’m also thinking, sometimes you just have to do something a little crazy. Putin did something a little crazy. And we’re all, ooh, let’s not get in front of that guy.

Obama is like the least likely person you’re ever going to meet to do something crazy. He’s prudent, thinks thing through? But sometimes you just got to strike a little fear…

JUDY WOODRUFF: Like what? I mean, what would be…

DAVID BROOKS:  Well, I’m beginning to think we’re going to get to a spot, if this continues to escalate, and it’s clear — well, it seems clear that Putin is — just wants to — if Ukraine wants to go West, he will dismember Ukraine.

And it seems to me that arming, not getting involved, us, in Ukraine, but arming Ukraine for some deterrent effect to keep the Russians out of there is a useful thing to start to think about. And I think we’re probably going to end up having a serious debate about that.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes.

The irrationality of all of it all is that Crimea was turned over under Khrushchev. This is going back 60 years. This isn’t something that happened in the post-Cold War world. So, I mean, what he is about, he is a bully, he Putin, and he is unpredictable and mercurial, and I think it’s fair to say corrupt.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, a president…

(LAUGHTER)

DAVID BROOKS:  Breaking news there.

JUDY WOODRUFF: That may not be going out on too much of a limb, but we will give you credit.

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I just — I don’t want to jeopardize relations between the NewsHour and…

JUDY WOODRUFF: But we know a president juggles many things.

One of the other things the White House is very much engaged in this week, David, is pushing — trying to get more people to sign up for the Affordable Care Act, for the health care law.

The president has been appearing on, shall we say, some less than — well, entertainment and sports venues, ESPN. He did that “Between Two Ferns” show online. He did “Ellen DeGeneres.’

Some — there’s been some criticism that isn’t so presidential. And the president came back and said, well, you know, Abraham Lincoln did this kind of thing. How far can a president stray and still be presidential?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. If he’s on with Miley Cyrus on the wrecking ball, then I would think he’s gone — Beyonce, I have been drinking, and — that’s going a little too far.

I think he’s fine. I think he’s totally fine. Remember, Bill Clinton did this. He went on “The Arsenio Hall Show” decades ago, and people thought, oh, that’s not presidential. But it depends on who the president is.

One thing Barack Obama does lack for, it’s dignity. He has dignity. And so this is not something he’s really putting it risk. And so when he went on the show, the “Between the Two Ferns,” or whatever it’s called — I’m not super hip to it myself, but Web site traffic surged.

DAVID BROOKS: So, it’s working for him.

And they need the young people. We’re at a stage in the health care enrollments where they have got some legitimacy. They’re not where they want it to be, but it’s sustainable. Where they aren’t yet is with young people, and people who are going to pay for this thing. And so whatever you have to do to get those people, Ellen DeGeneres, between the — whatever plant you choose, he has got to do that.

MARK SHIELDS: Matt Reese, who’s a great political consultant, and he said about seeking voters, you pick cherries where the cherries are. You don’t go to the apple orchard to pick cherries.

And this is what Barack Obama is doing. We’re long past the day when a president could talk to 65 percent of Americans by going on the evening news. This is a niche-driven, fragmented, segmentized television media market. And to reach people, they have shows they watch.

I don’t think Barack Obama could be accused of being unpresidential. I mean, he’s dealing with Ukraine, he’s dealing with Iran, he’s dealing with the economy. And, you know, the idea — I mean, Bill O’Reilly, who lodged the principal criticism against him for being unpresidential, is a dominant figure on cable news, he’s seen in exactly 1 percent of homes on a given night. Three million people see him.

So, Barack Obama has to — has to — I think if there’s a criticism to be made, it was the failure to sell the Affordable Care Act when it came out. There was no sales program. And we’re paying for it right now, the administration is, in trying to convince people to sign up.

JUDY WOODRUFF: A few other quick things I want to ask you about. Republicans this week are talking much more confidently, David, about taking over control of the Senate. Should they be more confident now?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, if you look at the numbers, yes.

It seemed a couple of weeks ago they had to have a run and win all the at-play seats to take over control. Now there’s just more seats at play because of various candidacies in New Hampshire and elsewhere. Now they could — there’s talk of 10, 11. You look at the 34 states where there are Senate races, and the Republican vs. Democratic generic battle number, it’s 50 Republican, 42 Democrat.

So they’re not doing great nationally, but in the states where there happen to be elections this year, they’re doing pretty well. And so if you look at the data, they are right to be feeling pretty good.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Should they feel so good about it?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, yes, the problem for Democrats is that any incumbent party, after you have held the White House for six years, there’s a cycle. You can argue with it, the six-year itch, call it what you will.

Average number of House lost is 39 seats in that sixth year. When you go to a president below 50 percent approval rating, as President Bush was, for example, in 2006, the damage to his party becomes geometrical. And so, all of a sudden, states where — for example, West Virginia, where the president’s job rating is in the 20s, and that’s a Democratic seat the Democrats would like to hold on to, the 30s in South Dakota, Montana, Kentucky, states where the Democrats are either hoping to win seats or defending seats.

So that’s what the president — Democrats are fighting. They’re fighting to retain their control of the Senate in states that are basically red that Mitt Romney carried. So, it’s an uphill fight. And the Republicans are going to have a decided money advantage. They outspent Democrats 2-1 in super PACs in 2012 and misspent it, didn’t spend it wisely. I don’t think you will see the same kind of mistakes made this time.

JUDY WOODRUFF: One last thing I wanted to ask you about, and that is somebody who was really a major figure in this city a long time.

Former Democratic Party chairman Bob Strauss died this week, David, at the age of 95. He was considered the power broker of power brokers, somebody who worked across party lines. What is his legacy?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, he was an insider. And there aren’t that many insiders of that sort anymore.

What always struck me about him, he wanted to run for president. He came sort of close to running for president. And they said, you’re kind of a fixer lobbyist, you can’t run for president. And we have had a lot of outsiders. We go for outsiders.

But I’m like of a mood, like, let’s get an insider. And let’s get a guy who’s a lobbyist. We say we need an LBJ who can work with Congress to actually get something done. Well, Strauss could get something done. If I’m talking to you, Mr. and Mrs. America, vote for an insider next time, because it is actually a skill to get things done around here.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Thirty seconds.

MARK SHIELDS: Irreverent, profane, colorful, took over a Democratic Party that was broken, had carried 14 states between the last two presidential elections, promised not to give the party a candidate, but instead to give the candidate a united party.

He overcame the factions. He was remarkable. He was funny. He came from West Texas, only Jewish family in Stamford, Texas. He said he grew up in an area where they thought Hanukkah was a duck call. He was just a self-mocking…

JUDY WOODRUFF: Your wife, Anne, was from…

MARK SHIELDS: My wife, Anne, is from the same town. Charlie Strauss, Bob’s father, ran the dry goods store there.

A remarkably effective man. He loved politics. He liked political reporters. He loved life. And he was awfully good at his business. And he made the Democrats — he gave them a winning hand in 1976. He was trusted by Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush as well.

JUDY WOODRUFF: He worked across party lines.

We thank you both. You’re here every Friday. And we’re grateful.

Mark Shields, David Brooks, thank you.