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Shields and Brooks on Putin perceptions and a tax reform proposal

February 28, 2014 at 6:38 PM EDT
Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks join Judy Woodruff to discuss the week’s news, including the latest developments in Ukraine and the ways Russian President Vladimir Putin wields power, the veto of a controversial bill in Arizona, Rep. Dave Camp’s new tax reform plan and the launch of a program encouraging private foundations to support young men of color.

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, Russia, David, U.S. officials are now saying they’re convinced the Russian military is in Crimea. You heard President Obama’s warning today. What are we to make of this?

DAVID BROOKS, The New York Times: Yes, I thought the warning was strong. I thought the reference to costs, I thought the reference to how deeply concerned the U.S. would be and the West would be if Russia continues this was a reasonably strong statement for him to go out there, but fully justified.

Ukraine was clearly — and Putin was clearly not going to do anything. He was going to throw some thuggish weight around. He will probably get to a reform to the electoral law. But the crucial thing here is money. Ukraine is a country which was really teetering toward bankruptcy.

And so this is a country for sale. And Putin has shown in the West, when we offered an IMF package a few months ago, we weren’t really willing to back it up with any money, and Putin. He was willing to outbid us. And so this is going to come down to who is going to outbid who. And I’m sure Putin thinks he can outbid us again, outbid the West again.

The administration sources I talked to are pretty resolute that we’re going to offer some money this time to keep the possibility of a Western-leaning Ukraine a fiscal reality. And so I think the administration is pretty resolved not to let Putin get away with this, given the leverage we have.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Where do you see this going, Mark?

MARK SHIELDS, Syndicated Columnist: Well, Chip Bohlen, who was the great U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union, said, there is no such thing as an expert on Russia; there’s just various degrees of ignorance.

And I fall in that category. I’m amazed that Putin, just having really been reflected glory of the Olympics…

JUDY WOODRUFF: Just a week ago.

MARK SHIELDS: A week ago. And having earned the goodwill that apparently was behind his rule, the prominence, the celebrity, the adulation, puts it on all on the line.

And David — I agree with David. Ukraine is in terrible shape. It needs $25 billion. It’s a country that has a gross domestic product of $176 billion. I mean, it’s not a wealthy country at 46 million people. And if it’s going to come, Judy, it’s going to come from the West and it’s going to come with strings attached, just as Greece did, perhaps not as severe, but there will be austerity, because they have an overvalued currency.

They have got a kleptocracy, with business moguls just cutting deals with the government, and the government with them. I mean, across the globe in the past year, we have seen democracy after democracy, and it’s been disappointment after disappointment. And I think is one where it’s going to require the best efforts and the long-term stamina of the West.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But what about the military piece of this? I mean, the fact that the Russians are sending their troops in, they’re sending military equipment in, David, does this rise to a different level? I know you’re stressing the economy, both of you, but what about the military?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. Well, there are two elements of Putin’s personality. The one is that everything is for sale. It’s all about organizing corruption.

And one of the things he’s got to — probably going to work on is the oligarchs in Ukraine take up 80 percent of the economy. He can insert the Russian oligarchs. So that is one side of his personality.

But the second side of his personality — personality in crisis after crisis is the psychology of fear. And he saw how the Ukraine parliament, even the people nominally on his side, were basically running for their lives in the last couple weeks. And so he’s going to put the pressure on the other way. And that’s just the way he always is. That is what we understand about him, that he’s an autocrat who believes in ruling by fear. And so he’s beginning to instill the fear. This is probably small-bore. And I think he’s on his best behavior sort of because of the Olympic glow. He can get a lot rougher than this, as we saw in Georgia.

And so the people I speak to expect him to — they have no illusions about the character of this guy. The U.S. policy, U.S. attitudes toward Putin within the administration, the last two administrations have really hardened to an amazing degree. And he is now seen as a narcissistic autocrat.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, what is really at stake here for the United States, Mark? I mean…

MARK SHIELDS: Well, the importance of Ukraine and its European engagement, I mean, I think for the future of — I think we have to establish the premise that honest, functioning, competent democracies are good, are good for world peace, are good for world — good for the people of those countries, first of all.

And that — Ukraine has not had that. And its only hope for that evolving, painful though it will be in its birth, is, in my judgment, the United States and the E.U. working together, and being in for the long run.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But if — when it comes to Russia, though, tensions keep rising. We’re counting on the Russians in some regard in Iran, in Syria.

MARK SHIELDS: With Syria, yes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: I mean, in a host of troubled parts of the world, even the Middle East.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, if you wanted to delimit the bad things that could happen, Dimitri Simes mentioned earlier on the program just the possibility of miscalculation.

I mean, nobody thought World War I was going to happen either, not that we’re going to have World War I, but you could have miscalculations and you really could have something recently terrible if Ukraine breaks up. So there’s that. But, then, as you say, he could say, you mess with me in Ukraine, I’m going to really mess with you in the parts you really care about, which is Iran and Syria, where we do need them.

But I would just go back to Putin. We definitely need long-term stability in Central Europe and in Ukraine and in countries like that. But Putin is a history-making individual. He sees himself as someone who is shaping history. And people like that are inherently destabilizing.

And so he is the head of really a failing country with a lot of power, a lot of money, and an itch to destabilize the world. And so it’s his stability, it’s his either rise in power or fall in power that may be ultimately what is at stake, one of the world’s great troublemakers.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, let’s bring it back home and talk about something that happened in this country this week, Mark.

And that is Arizona, a zigzag, I guess you could say, where the legislature passed a law saying — a bill saying that merchants, service providers could refuse to provide a service to anyone who is gay. Now the governor, Jan Brewer, Republican, vetoed this.

What does it all add up to?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, follow my lips, Judy.


MARK SHIELDS: The American Civil Liberties Union, ACLU, the Anti-Defamation League, ADL, add to that Apple, Marriott, Delta Air Lines, American Airlines, Marriott Hotels, Starwood Hotels, the loss of any standing for Arizona as a resort or convention center was on the table.

And Jan Brewer understood this. It was the old biblical injunction, render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s. This wasn’t God’s. This was Caesar. This might have been freedom of religion on the part of the — or religious freedom on the part of advocates of this legislation, but this came right down to Arizona facing the same ignominy and loss of capital that it faced on Martin Luther King Day, when it refused to accept Martin Luther King Day as a national holiday and again lost convention business.

So, I think it was a pretty practical, hardheaded decision made, and with Mitt Romney, to his credit, weighing in, in favor for vetoing it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Along with Arizona’s two senators.

But, David, it is not just the Arizona legislature. What is it — I think there are six other states that are now considering similar legislation.


Well, hopefully — well, without declaring my interests here, hopefully, we will see the same result. And what is interesting to me is the reassertion of the corporate country club establishment. That is what really rallied here and really changed the bill, that this is an establishment that has been losing power to the Tea Party, in part, as my colleague Gail pointed out, because of the campaign finance reform that made it hard for the big donors to control the party and made it easier for the Tea Party.

But — but, so — but this was a reassertion of more or less the corporate elite, and saying, don’t do this to our state. And they carried the day. And what is I think useful is that a lot of the small, marginal groups, often some of the Tea Partiers or the social conservative groups that are off on the fringes, have had their way, because the people in the establishment who are in the center have not been able to slap them down.

And here was a case where they did that, facing ruinous economic costs. And I can’t see why other states wouldn’t face the same logic and wouldn’t try to mobilize. And if you think the center needs to mobilize against the fringes, this would be a good sign.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right. This is a fun subject, tax reform.

The — Mark, the Republican chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, Congressman Dave Camp, today rolled out what would be a pretty dramatic change in tax — the tax code, getting us down to three rates, really, 10, 25, 35.

But the leadership, Republican and Democratic leadership, basically said, it’s not going anywhere.

MARK SHIELDS: I would say, first of all, two cheers for Dave Camp. We have had a lot of talk in this town, a lot of seminars, a lot of focus groups, a lot of theses on — written on the subject of tax reform.

But we haven’t had a committee do anything. And Dave Camp, the Republican, in his last year as chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, did, in fact, produce a document, which had heresy in it.

Dave Camp said for those banks, for Citigroup and Goldman Sachs, those struggling little mom-and-pop shops that were bailed out by the American people, that he would impose a tax upon them, a slight tax. But this is something that Republicans don’t do, now, haven’t voted for a single tax since 1993, before 1993, starting with Bill Clinton.

So, you know, I thought it showed daring, imagination.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But it’s not going anywhere.

MARK SHIELDS: I was very disappointed in the speaker’s reaction, blah, blah, blah, which was an insult to somebody who had spent some real work on it.

No, it isn’t going to go anywhere, Judy, because something like this takes a gestation period of three, four years and a lot of work. Dave Camp began the work.

DAVID BROOKS: I’m still hurting from Mark’s smear on seminars.


DAVID BROOKS: I do seminars.


DAVID BROOKS: I thought it was a good step forward.

Like Mark, it’s a step. And it’s not going to pass, but it’s a step, and a step for some of the reasons Mark said. But it’s a — it’s was a Republican plan that preserved the progressivity of the tax code, and maybe even increased it a little, and a plan that is revenue-neutral, but a plan that would produce amazing economic benefits if enacted.

If the Republicans — if the Democrats want to come in and say, we will adopt a similar strategy, maybe we want a little more revenue, then you really could begin to have a negotiation, or at least you would if we lived in a normal political system.

But I thought it was — as Mark said, there is a lot of political opposition to this. Why should we put out a plan cutting somebody’s mortgage interest deduction before an election, when it’s not going to pass anyway?


DAVID BROOKS: So he did the right thing in putting it out there and getting this debate going another step forward. So I agree with Mark. I think it was an outstanding step.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Just finally — maybe we have time for two things.

And one is the president rolling out this program this week called My Brother’s Keeper, all about, Mark, young men of color, saying, we need to do something. A lot coming it is coming from the private sector, but it’s doing something about young men who just have not had a way up the ladder, as the president put it.

MARK SHIELDS: No, I thought — I thought it was pitch-perfect for the president.

This was something that he spoke about from a very personal experience, personal angle. He spoke to the young men in the room, autobiographically about his own, having gotten high and not done well in school, and all the rest of it.

For somebody who is criticized often, even by his own supporters, of being too cool, too distance, too detached, I thought it showed a very welcome passion on a subject in which he has, in my judgment, unique standing.


And I would say what it does, people say, oh, it’s not — there’s no money, there’s no — it’s all private sector. But it does a couple of things. First, it begins to mobilize a coalition on behalf of some of these programs that the next president can use. And the second thing it does, there is going to be a lot of testing and studying to find out what actually works and then gathering of that information.

So I think it’s — it’s not huge, but it lays the predicate for some policies for the next president.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Gwen did a wonderful interview — had a wonderful report this week talking to some of these young men. It really is — it really does give you hope.



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

MARK SHIELDS: Thank you.