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Shields and Brooks on Bergdahl criticism, Mississippi primary politics

June 6, 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 the Obama administration’s decision to exchange of five Taliban leaders for the return of prisoner of war Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl and the GOP primary contest in Mississippi.
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TRANSCRIPT

JUDY WOODRUFF: And to the analysis of Shields and Brooks. That’s syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks.

Gentlemen, welcome.

MARK SHIELDS: Thank you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So the story, I guess, that dominated the news this weeks, Bowe Bergdahl, the American prisoner of war released from the Taliban, five days after the president announced this, lots of criticism from both sides, especially Republicans.

Yesterday, the president found himself still answering questions, still defending his decision.

Here’s just part of what the president said.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I’m never surprised by controversies that are whipped up in Washington. Right? That’s par for the course.

But I will repeat what I said two days ago. We have a basic principle. We do not leave anybody wearing the American uniform behind. We had a prisoner of war whose health had deteriorated, and we were deeply concerned about, and we saw an opportunity and we seized it. And I make no apologies for that.

I write too many letters to folks who unfortunately don’t see their children again after fighting a war. I make absolutely no apologies for making sure that we get back a young man to his parents and that the American people understand that this is somebody’s child.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Mark, today the Taliban is disputing part of what the president said. They said Bowe Bergdahl was eating fruit, he was playing soccer.

Was this the right thing to do?

MARK SHIELDS: It was the right thing to do, Judy.

It was inexpertly and politically — politically ineptly done. And I think an expectation, sort of the announcement in the Rose Garden, and all that attended it, was just short of tone-deafness on the part of the White House and the president in particular. But the act itself is the right thing to do.

I mean, the principle he stated is a core principle of American values, and that is we do not leave Americans behind. And we can find out in plenty of time whether in fact the charges against Bergdahl made by some people are true or not true or whatever else, but we won’t do it on the basis of some sort of kangaroo court by conservative commentators and a rush to judgment to hang the guy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And some of the critics, David, are saying, well, because he left his post, apparently deserted, this is different.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. Well, I’m with Mark on this one.

I think it’s not the health of the individual we should care about. It’s the national fabric, the national community. We are one national community. We’re a polarized country, we’re a segmented country, but at the end of the day, we do have to preserve the idea that we have some solidarity.

So, when there’s times of crisis, we do react as one. So, when we fight, we do fight as one. And to do that, you do have to have a sense it’s all for one and one for all, and you have to protect that fabric. So it’s not only about him. It’s about the fabric.

And whether he deserted, whether he said bad things about America, He certainly said bad and embarrassing and shameful things about the country and about the Army, but it’s not desert — get citizenship by merit. You get it by birth, by being a member of our community.

And whether he deserved it or not is really beside the point. The soldiers who fight for us are not doing it because we deserve it. They’re doing it because we’re Americans. And so I do think whether he deserved it or not is really not the issue. The issue is that he’s American.

If he did something against the law, we will bring him back, we will try him, but that is far from being proven. Right now, he’s just an American soldier.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Mark, how do you explain the — just this huge criticism, including from some people who were calling for the president to get Bergdahl back?

MARK SHIELDS: Yes.

You know, I think that it has to be at some point a political explanation to an awful lot of it, Judy, especially those who were calling for every effort to be made to bring him back.

In a strange way, this has become, in my judgment, a metaphor for the war itself, that it’s a war that’s unresolved, unlike the one that we’re celebrating this day and where there’s a victory and a resolution and good triumphs and everybody comes home. This is a war that is — and it’s remarkable to me that, while we have grown somewhat accepting of the fact of the terrible toll that this has taken on America’s troops, that they come home and the mental and physical wounds that they carry with them, we acknowledge PTSD.

And I would just say, there he is in Afghanistan. I’m willing to give them the benefit of the doubt until I know. I have an idea. I don’t know what happened there. And the idea somehow this was an act of disloyalty to the country or wrong, make no mistake about it. Democrats on the Hill were outraged. They felt that they…

JUDY WOODRUFF: Because they weren’t consulted?

MARK SHIELDS: They weren’t informed.

And Congress, as an institution, loves to have that. They don’t want the responsibility of declaring war. They haven’t done that since December 8, 1941, but they want sort of that acknowledgment of authority. But the White House has been inept — inept in its dealings with Congress.

And there is anger among Democrats that have taken it — been on the defensive on the Affordable Care Act, on the Veterans Administration, on the air pollution.

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I would say two things I agree with and one thing I disagree with.

MARK SHIELDS: OK.

DAVID BROOKS: Two things I agree with, give him the benefit of the doubt. People in combat, they’re under enormous stress. Give him the benefit of the doubt.

Second, the political tone-deafness of the White House really is mind-boggling, actually, not to see how people would react when you’re releasing five Guantanamo — really bad guys from Guantanamo.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You mean not to have anticipated this.

DAVID BROOKS: Not to have anticipated this, to have had the Rose Garden ceremony, as if it was just going to be the Oprah show and everybody was going to applaud.

That strikes me as very weird. And I don’t really have an explanation. The other area I disagree — and though we agree on the overall — and it’s a principle that we leave no one behind, but it’s not a blind principle. We do have to be aware of the consequences.

If we traded people that would then go off and kill 10,000 Americans for one soldier, then you really have to do think. So, we have got to be consequentialist a little. And so you would have to look at the specific people we’re releasing in this case.

There are five really bad guys. They have been out of circulation 12 years. It’s not clear that — how much damage they will do. They might do some damage, but I would say less damage than tearing up the national fabric by essentially saying to a member, a citizen of our country, we’re cutting you off.

The Israelis trade — as has often been said this week, they will trade 1,100 people for one, 1,100 people for three. And they will do that because they all know Israeli parents are flesh of one flesh. They all have some sympathy with each another and support and preserve that sympathy in a country like ours that’s deeply polarized.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, does this endure, Mark? Do we wait and see what Bergdahl says when…

MARK SHIELDS: Yes, I mean, we don’t know.

The poor guy — I mean, poor guy — I say poor guy. He spent five years, Judy. He spent five years essentially in isolation, away from anybody he ever knew, anything he was ever familiar with. And he’s in Germany at the hospital. They say he’s having trouble with English.

When he comes back, I mean, I’m sure there will be — there will be hearings. There will be — but he will have his chance. And I trust American justice a lot more than I trust Taliban justice.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, David, I’m hearing what Mark is saying about the contrast with D-Day. We’re looking, we’re seeing the shores of Normandy, France, and a very different kind of war and a very different kind of legacy for this country than anything we have ever experienced in Afghanistan.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes.

The one parallel I would draw is the president has made a lot of news this week and the last couple weeks by saying this phrase, which I will euphemize, as we don’t do stupid stuff.

And that’s — he said, this is the Obama doctrine. And it’s an Obama doctrine based very on his own feeling errs when it overreaches, when it tries to do too much. Well, the D-Day, though it looked smart in retrospect, Operation Overlord did not necessarily look smart beforehand.

The D.F. invasion a couple years before had been a disaster. The weather could have turned bad. It could have been a really horrible event. And Dwight Eisenhower was prepared for that.

And so the idea that all of our problems are caused by overreach, by overexertion, is just a half-truth. The World War II generation was a war and a post-war period where we — America was plenty aggressive, took plenty of chances, and some of them paid off and some of them didn’t.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And what Eisenhower did, you’re saying, was clearly reaching.

MARK SHIELDS: On D-Day, it was reaching? It was. It was an incredible — it was an incredible act.

And I think what — it’s not simply the war. The war was remarkable, Judy, in that there was an equality of sacrifice. It was universal. We absolutely all were engaged, whether it was the rationing of meat or gasoline or cigarettes or alcohol or whatever.

One-third of all the vegetables and fruit in the United States were raised in victory gardens, 20 million victory gardens. The four president sons, all four served in combat in World War II. It’s back to Lyndon Johnson and Chuck Robb, his son-in-law, before we have even seen anybody in the president’s family in battle.

So that — that was part of it. The other thing was, we usually acknowledge individual acts of great bravery, the Medal of Honor, Navy Cross, Silver Star. This was thousands upon thousands of American — all an act of just incredible collective and individual courage, I mean, going and landing on that Normandy beach, 80 miles of open water, the armaments, Pointe du Hoc, all of it.

It was remarkable. And the unity of the country at the time is something that we can just treasure and just covet.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And that’s something we want to remember.

So, let me bring up elections, politics, primaries. David, Mississippi and Iowa voted this week, and in Mississippi, particularly interesting. You now have a runoff, a seven-term Republican, stalwart Republican, Thad Cochran, now facing a challenger, Chris McDaniel, Tea Party. How worried should Thad Cochran be?

DAVID BROOKS: I think significantly worried.

What is interesting is the changing logic of the appropriators, which used to be that if you brought a lot of bacon home to the state, you were doing pretty well. We have seen that erode. But he’s the classic example because he brought so much post-Katrina to the state, that it really — he was giving a lot to Mississippians.

But a lot of people have decided, we understand the money coming here is good, but Washington is so messed up, we still got to vote these people out of office. A lot of people are saying that. The thing that’s interesting to me about this runoff is who has the passion.

We assume the Tea Party, the opponent has the passion. We assume they’re more impassioned and more motivated to vote than the regulars. But I’m not sure that’s true this year. And it will be very interesting. If Cochran survives, it will be a sign that among the establishment there are some passionate voters as well, at least as passionate as on the Tea Party side.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How do you see that?

MARK SHIELDS: Thad Cochran seeking his seventh term. He’s had six terms.

He’s won nine consecutive elections in Mississippi, without ever once appealing to racial feelings at all. He’s been above it. He’s been an exemplary public servant.

And I agree with David that the remarkable thing about him — Michael Barone put it very well, the congressional scholar. He said, he represents a vanishing breed of the Southern Republican. He’s personally decent. He doesn’t demonize the other side. He works across the aisle. He does pride himself on bringing home — he’s conservative, but not rigidly so, and he’s agreeable to everybody.

I mean, it’s really a courtly Southern type, which is no longer in vogue. And I really do think that he’s in trouble. There’s no question about it. He didn’t get the majority that they had hoped for.

But Mississippi Governor, former Governor William Winter, who was an excellent player on both racial reconciliation and education in the state, told Jonathan Martin of The New York Times this would be the worst stereotype confirmed of Mississippi if McDaniel and the Tea Party win this one.

This is a — and I think there’s a lot to it. And I will say this, Judy. It’s a warning for the rest of the country. We are seeing the future in Mississippi politics; $5 million goes into McDaniel’s behalf from outside independent groups. His campaign raises one-fourth of that, 1.4.

So, these are campaigns being run. And $3 million went into Cochran’s.

JUDY WOODRUFF: By outside groups.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes, just outside groups are running these campaigns. They’re funding them and they’re driving them.

And that’s — thank you Supreme Court of the United States.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, we have to stop here, unless you have two seconds…

DAVID BROOKS: No, nothing that wise.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Save it for next — we’re just glad you two are insiders.

(LAUGHTER)

JUDY WOODRUFF: Mark Shields, David Brooks.