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Shields and Gerson on Cold War echoes, campaign financing

March 7, 2014 at 6:27 PM EST
Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson join Jeffrey Brown to discuss the week’s news, including the crisis over the fate of Crimea in Ukraine and criticism of the Obama administration’s foreign policy, as well as the evolution of political campaign financing.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: And to the analysis of Shields and Gerson.

Jeff is back and in charge of that.

JEFFREY BROWN: And that’s syndicated columnist Mark Shields and Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson.

David Brooks is away today.

Well, gentlemen, let’s go back to the beginning of that interview we just heard.

Mark, the NATO treaty, the commitment to come to the aid of Eastern European countries, a confrontation with Russia, Cold War type of talk.

MARK SHIELDS: It — well, I think the gravity of the situation was very much underlined by General Dempsey.

I mean, he — he was serious. He didn’t pretend that it wasn’t. He didn’t want this to be “The Guns of August,” that we stumbled into something. He said he’s keeping — want to open the lines of communication with his counterpart in Russia, as well as urging and emphasizing diplomatic efforts.

JEFFREY BROWN: What jumped out to you, Michael?

MICHAEL GERSON: Well, it really struck me how scared the Eastern Europeans must be, all of these things, talking about Article 5, talking about troop movements.

They’re needed, but it’s frightening that they’re needed. Vladimir Putin wants to re-litigate the end of the Cold War. That’s one of his goals. And he uses tools of intimidation in what he regards as his sphere of influence. And that intimidation is working. I think that interview indicated that it needed to be reassured.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, what is your sense of how much the stakes have raised for the U.S., even politically, in this last week, as the move into Crimea has happened?

MARK SHIELDS: Oh, I think — let’s be very blunt about it. Foreign policy is not a front-burner issue to the American people right now, and has not been.

And the economy remains so, trailing health care. But it is obviously getting more attention, and understandably so, because the stakes seem higher, and the possibility for, I don’t want to say catastrophe, but for crisis, certainly have increased.

I think, politically, you have seen a change in this country. The reality is this. There is minimal enthusiasm for another war in this country. I mean, we went through — without recycling, we went through a war where we were told we were going to be greeted as liberators, that was false intelligence that the other country had weapons of mass destruction, that it was going to be a cakewalk. And it wasn’t. And it hasn’t worked out.

And so I think the American enthusiasm for military engagement is pretty limited.

JEFFREY BROWN: But…

MARK SHIELDS: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes.

But I want to throw in, because there has been an increase this week of criticism from Republicans of President Obama, Michael, John McCain said, this is the ultimate result of a feckless foreign policy, in which nobody believes in America’s strength anymore.

MICHAEL GERSON: Well, I think it’s worth saying, just in response, that the threats of the world don’t really care if Americans are interested or not.

They arrive on their own timing. And America needs to be prepared for them. I think that McCain and Graham have made a tough critique here. I think historical counterfactuals are always very difficult. This could have happened with Teddy Roosevelt or Ronald Reagan in power. You don’t really know.

The problem — the case that they’re making, however, is that there’s a cumulative case against this administration, when you look at defense cuts, when you look at the reset with Russia, which ended the isolation of the Russians after the Georgian invasion, when you look at the president constantly talking about nation-building at home, six years of rhetoric, talking about retreat and retrenchment.

The case here is, this does matter. If you look historically, when Kennedy met Khrushchev and a sensed weakness in that relationship in the summit that they had, a real disaster in the Cold War, he — Khrushchev started building the Berlin Wall two months later.

These kinds of things can matter in the calculations of foreign leaders.

JEFFREY BROWN: What do you think of this…

MARK SHIELDS: I could not — I could not disagree more with Michael on this.

First of all, John McCain and Lindsey Graham can use their rhetorical barbs. When you hired Barack Obama, you were not hiring someone who was going to do a bad imitation of Clint Eastwood and say, make my day, or anything of the sort.

He has a rational, thoughtful, serious approach. He’s not somebody who speaks in bombastic terms or hurls thunderbolts rhetorically. The reality is that the reset with Russia — and I am second to none in my dislike of Putin — but the reality is that we wouldn’t have had an election in Iran, in my judgment, without that reset with him that led to a more moderate leadership there and a chance for rapprochement and denuclearization that — as far as the Syrian situation is concerned, I don’t think we would have gotten as far as we have with chemical weapons without Putin’s involvement.

But I’m not in any way defending him. The reality is, there is no action statement that any of these people have. They say — it’s like my saying, let me tell you, this is too much. Putin’s a bum. And this can’t stand. And what are we going to — all right, what do we do? What do we do?

JEFFREY BROWN: So, what’s the answer?

MICHAEL GERSON: What we do is a long-term strategy of isolation against Russia. We’re imposing sanctions. We’re working with the Europeans, who are less willing than we are to take these kind of actions.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes.

MICHAEL GERSON: But…

JEFFREY BROWN: But you’re agreeing that this really does stem a — well, these words, feckless foreign policy?

MICHAEL GERSON: Well, the situation here is that we did have a previous Russian invasion of one of its neighbors, Georgia.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes.

MICHAEL GERSON: There was the creation of isolation. That isolation was ended. That’s what the reset meant.

It’s not irrational for Vladimir Putin to say, I can outlast this isolation as well. And we need to signal that’s not the case, that he can’t outlast this isolation, like he did the last one.

MARK SHIELDS: I don’t know, militarily, beyond what has happened so far, what would lead to the United States’ engagement or involvement.

And I don’t how the sanctions are going to be employed, absent European cooperation. Are we going to cut off the gas that Europe depends on? That means the United States is going to have to export it. That’s going to mean lifting the ban on the United States exporting natural gas.

I mean, there are a lot of complicated moving parts. And there seems to be a glee on the part of so many on the Republican side right now, led by Rudy Giuliani, who just extolled Putin as the admirable leader. There’s a real leader, somebody who decides in the morning what he wants to do, gets it through Parliament, and, 30 minutes later, it’s done, I mean, an anti-democratic endorsement by Dick Cheney, who says that Barack Obama would rather spend money on food stamps than on our troops, I mean, Dick Cheney, who presided over a 40 percent cut in our national defense budget when he was secretary of defense at the end of the Cold War.

So, there just seems to be sort of an eagerness to lacerate Barack Obama.

MICHAEL GERSON: I don’t think there’s — I don’t think there’s an eagerness here.

I think what a lot of analysts are saying is that we are gradually increasing the isolation of Russia, slowed down by the Europeans. But he is moving to consolidate his gains with a referendum on March 17, which is coming up, to incorporate the Crimea into the Russian empire.

MARK SHIELDS: Now, I have a problem with this, OK, because the people of Crimea, I assume, were going to say they should have some right to self-determination, if this is done legally and constitutionally.

MICHAEL GERSON: It’s not legal.

MARK SHIELDS: No, but if it’s done legally and constitutionally under international monitors, and they vote to associate, identify with Russia, then that — what is — what is the United States talking — isn’t that what Iraq was all about, self-determination? Isn’t that what we were going to have there? That was what that war was about.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, one last word, and then I want to get to one other subject.

MICHAEL GERSON: Well, that was precisely Dempsey’s point.

If you were to allow Russian self-determination across Eastern Europe, you would have endless conflict and chaos. This can’t be allowed. This — this — we can’t allow Russia to reassert its role in what it regards as its sphere of influence against pro-Western governments like the Ukraine.

MARK SHIELDS: I’m not recommending that or suggesting it as an alternative.

I do remember, because I’m older than you, times when the United States of America sent troops…

JEFFREY BROWN: Uh-oh. He played the age card on you.

(LAUGHTER)

MARK SHIELDS: … troops into the Dominican Republic — into the Dominican Republic to protect American citizens, which was a myth, which was a myth. And we did it. And that — that is in recent American history.

JEFFREY BROWN: OK.

I want to turn to one other very different subject here. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has now twice gone to the floor of the Senate to denounce the Koch brothers, the major contributors to conservative causes, and he used very strong language.

He called their activity un-American and accused them of trying to buy the country.

Michael?

MICHAEL GERSON: Well, first, it’s worth saying that when a powerful political leader uses his office to attack private citizens engaged in political speech, that’s a problem.

He didn’t use this to talk about broad issues on campaign finance reform. In fact, what he said is — and we need to quote him — “I’m after the two brothers.” That’s really intimidation and abuse of power by a public official.

It’s also very typical of a conspiratorial narrative that’s on the left and the right, that, somehow, when you’re losing or when you’re not doing well, it’s the fault of some billionaire you don’t agree, George Soros or the Koch brothers.

You know, I think people should engage in arguments, not question the motives and funding of their opponents.

JEFFREY BROWN: What do you think, Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: I think it was unfortunate that Senator Reid used the term un-American. I mean, that has echoes of the era of Joseph McCarthy, when careers were ended and lives were trashed by that epithet.

Is American public political financing is a disaster? It’s a disaster beyond a scandal, beyond a tragedy. It’s — we went through elections from 1976 to 2008 in this country where candidates for president accepted limits on what they could receive and what they could spend, and then accepted public financing in the general election.

And that was broken, let it be noted, by Barack Obama in 2008, under the myth that John McCain was going to raise more money than he did. And he raised twice as much as McCain did.

From that point forward, you knew public financing was over, because the Republicans had always been defensive about it. Add — bring in the Citizens United case that said, mistakenly — if any one of these judges had ever have run for sheriff, they might have known the truth — said that a corporation is a person, the total, diametric opposite of what — everything that Teddy Roosevelt and Republicans had stood for.

And we have now opened this up to people like the Koch brothers or anybody else with a billion dollars, the left, right. And I’m telling you, what it does is, it turns the candidates into mendicants, into supplicants, and basically into ideological eunuchs.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, just 30 seconds.

The tactic, you’re saying — the problem is real, but the tactic perhaps is wrong?

MICHAEL GERSON: I think there are disturbing elements about this system, but they’re not distributed by ideology.

You have Soros and Koch. You have the unions and you have the Chamber. That the system, you may not like, but it doesn’t privilege one party or one ideology. And we have generally believed in a marketplace and ideas.

MARK SHIELDS: I’m not even talking ideology. I’m talking about the fact that candidates spend all of this time — and the more time you spend raising money, the more money you raise, it narrows — it narrows your issues, because you end up taking money from so many sources, that you’re not going to raise issues that are going to in any way alienate them.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, we ended up with our first agreement there. Alright.

Michael Gerson, Mark Shields, thank you both very much.

MICHAEL GERSON: Thank you.