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Shields and Ponnuru on House GOP vs. Obama, missing IRS emails

June 27, 2014 at 6:40 PM EDT
Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and Ramesh Ponnuru of National Review join Judy Woodruff to discuss the week’s top news, including how incumbents held their ground against the tea party in last Tuesday’s primaries, Rep. John Boehner’s threat to sue President Obama for abusing presidential powers, as well as accusations swirling around missing IRS emails.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And to the analysis of Shields and Ponnuru. That’s syndicated columnist Mark Shields and Ramesh Ponnuru of “The National Review.” David Brooks is off.

Gentlemen, welcome.

And let’s start by about talking about last Tuesday’s primaries.

Mark, a good day for establishment Republican, not so much for the Tea Party. How do you explain what happened?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, certainly, Oklahoma was very good for — I think I can say not good for the Tea Party, where T.W. Shannon, the speaker of the House, African-American, Indian-American, kind of just gravitated towards Sarah Palin, Ted Cruz, Mike Lee.

And James Lankford, the very conservative congressman, two-term, won in a walk, without a runoff. And so in that sense, I would say it was a good day for the establishment. The big one was Mississippi. And Thad Cochran upset history, tradition, everything else, being an incumbent who was forced into a runoff.

Turnout increased by 61,000 votes over the first primary. And he won, quite frankly, by turning out Reagan Democrats, Native Americans, but, most interestingly and impressively of all, African-Americans, who one could say provided the margin of victory. And it was a victory there for the establishment. Particularly, credit goes to Haley Barbour, the former governor, his nephew, Henry Barbour.

Haley made the stakes known to voters, that this was going to be a case of electing somebody that, if they elected Chris McDaniel, who would won on the slogan he could do less for Mississippi.


MARK SHIELDS: And that would have been a first in American politics. And Cochran had been very, very successful in delivering goods to the state.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Ramesh, what do you make of what happened in Mississippi?

RAMESH PONNURU: Well, I think Mississippi is the great exception to the overall story of these primaries, which is not just the establishment beating the Tea Party. It’s the establishment and Tea Party actually converging.

If you look what happened in Oklahoma, for example, Jim Lankford was the congressman who was considered the establishment guy, although when he first ran for Congress in 2010, he was the Tea Party guy.

MARK SHIELDS: That’s right.

RAMESH PONNURU: And he got the votes of most very conservative Oklahoma Republicans.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But compared to this other man who was running against him.

RAMESH PONNURU: Right. That’s right.

But the interesting thing here is, it’s not a question of Tea Party voters getting outvoted. Most Tea Party voters backed Mitch McConnell in Kentucky, backed the winning candidate in North Carolina. In Nebraska, a lot of these differences have — were transcended by Ben Sasse.

Mississippi’s the great exception, where you had a bruising slugfest, and it was a very tight race.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And they spent a lot of money.

RAMESH PONNURU: They spent a lot of money and they said all kinds of things about each other.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, as Mark said, you had this crossover. There’s good evidence that a lot of Democrats voted for Thad Cochran, the incumbent Republican, and a number of African-Americans.

RAMESH PONNURU: I think there’s no question. If it had been a closed primary, just Republicans, Cochran would have lost.

MARK SHIELDS: And if it had been a closed election in 1980, Ronald Reagan would have lost.

I mean, the ability to reach out — and that is an argument political scientists have had — should it just be a pure primary election, and just restrict it the party members? I would say that this was a civil war at the 19th hole of a country club. I mean, you had millions of dollars being spent by the pro-business Chamber of Commerce against the anti-tax Club for Growth.

And conservative groups put more money in against Thad Cochran in Mississippi, Tea Party groups, Tea Party-affiliated groups, than was spent in his behalf.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, it was the first time we have seen — at least that I have seen something like that. Maybe it’s happened before, where you had had African-American voters crossing over and voting in a Republican primary.

MARK SHIELDS: I have never seen it before. And to me, it only augurs good things for Mississippi. I mean, it really does.


MARK SHIELDS: And Travis Childers, the Democrat who after this primary, Thad Cochran — he’s the Democratic nominee — he’s in a great position to challenge Thad Cochran to debate every week of this campaign.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, you just mentioned civil war. Let’s talk about another kind of war, and that is, Ramesh, this escalating, I don’t know what else to call it, war between congressional Republicans and the president.

They’re saying he is abusing his position as president. He is arrogating powers to himself that he doesn’t have. The speaker of the House is suing, is about to sue the president. The president himself yesterday, what did he say, he talked about this as a phony scandal.

How do you explain what’s going on here?

RAMESH PONNURU: Well, the lawsuit or the threatened lawsuit is about whether the president’s faithfully executing the laws as the Constitution says he’s supposed to.

And a lot of congressional Republicans have been fuming at sort of an increasing volume over the last several months about how the administration has in their view rewritten the law on health care, rewritten the law on immigration and other matters.

The problem with the administration’s framing of this, this is just a partisan endeavor, you look at these Supreme Court decisions against the administration, saying the administration is overreaching, obviously, that is something that the Democratic appointees, the liberal justices, the Obama appointees are all agreeing Obama has overstepped.


MARK SHIELDS: The Supreme Court has given a cautionary note, no question, on — certainly on recess appointments and on EPA regulations.

But I think, Judy, what struck me this week with the House suit, this is a week in which it was announced the worst possible economic news for the country and certainly politically for the Democrats. The economy shrank by 2.9 percent the first quarter. And what is the Republicans’ response? Is there an economic package? Do they want to talk about the economy?

No, we’re going to talk about an absolutely bogus suit that they’re going to bring against the president, which we know is going nowhere. And it just looks like John Boehner was feeling the pressure from the hard right of his own caucus: We have got to do something. We have tried the impeachment thing before some 16 years ago. That didn’t work in the second term of a president, so let’s do this.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Bogus suit, is that what it is, Ramesh?

RAMESH PONNURU: Well, I wouldn’t be so sure that the courts are going to view it the same way.

Who knows how it’s going to proceed. But I would say, if you look at the reasoning of the decisions that the Supreme Court has been making about the administration, where they think the administration has been grabbing power from the other branches, I think you would have to had some worry if you’re one of their lawyers.

MARK SHIELDS: They have got to develop a single argument against Barack Obama. He’s weak. He’s lily-livered. He’s absolutely docile in foreign policy. And yet he’s this tyrant, this despot, this power-hungry grabber domestically.

I mean, you have got it one way or the other. He’s either one or the other. And I would just point out, President Reagan had 182 more executive orders than — when he was president, than Barack Obama has ever issued.

George W. Bush issued 110 more executive orders. And Reagan had eight times as many recess appointments. And I never heard this criticism made before.

RAMESH PONNURU: If the debate is about the sheer number of executive orders, that’s absolutely right.

But I think that the debate is broader than that.


RAMESH PONNURU: And I don’t think you have anything comparable in the previous administrations to President Obama saying, I can’t implement the DREAM Act unilaterally. That would go beyond my powers. A few months later, I’m going to implement the DREAM Act unilaterally.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, another — we can — we could talk about that, but I want to ask about another aspect of war going on between the Congress and the president, Mark, and that is the IRS.

The commissioner of the IRS, John Koskinen, has been called before Congress now a number of times just in the last few days. There’s questions about missing e-mails, hard drive computers by top ranking IRS officials that were destroyed, a lot of questions about what happened. How do you read this and where is it headed?

MARK SHIELDS: Full disclosure, John Koskinen has been someone I have known and respected for 35 years. And he’s taken on nothing but thankless assignments as a public servant, somebody who has done very well and could retire, play golf and play with his grandchildren.

Instead, he’s come back to answer this call, just as he did on Y2K, just as he did on the closing of the government in 1995. He’s just — deputy mayor of the District of Columbia, taken over Freddie Mac. He’s taken nothing but tough assignments.

And this one is probably the most thankless of all. IRS is unpopular. It’s unpopular across the board. They demand your records, and the idea that their records are missing is a storyline that is very difficult to defend.

But I see absolutely no connection. I have watched the hearings carefully. And I will say that I just think this is a case of a committee run amuck. I think Darrell Issa is truly out of control.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Or committees. It several.

MARK SHIELDS: The committees. Yes, but the vying between Ways and Means and Government Reform, I just think it’s a question of public service. I really do.

And they’re going to get to the answer. They’re going to get to the bottom of it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Ramesh, how do you see this?

RAMESH PONNURU: I think that there’s no way to tell this story that reflects well on the IRS or how it has been run.

I think if you have a $1.8 billion information technology budget, as the IRS does each year, you ought to have better record-keeping practices than it has. So, we have got, at the very least, a story of pretty amazing incompetence.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Do you think — at this point, Republicans are asking for more e-mails, more information to see whether the White House influenced this. I mean, is this going to continue?

RAMESH PONNURU: Well, I think that there is a great deal of skepticism that we know the full story.

I do think the Republicans are making a mistake if they talk about it as though they already know the conclusion and they already know that it’s going to lead to the White House, but I think absolutely it’s important to keep asking these questions.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Last thing I want to ask both of you about is someone who really was a giant when he served testify United States Senate. That’s Howard Baker, the Senate majority leader. He died this week, Mark, at the age of 88, and a remarkable legacy.

MARK SHIELDS: A remarkable legacy.

Judy, before Twitter and texting and all-news cable, there were about three dozen people who — mostly males — who used cover national politics. And late at night over drinks on the campaign trail, when people let their hair down, this leftist press corps almost overwhelmingly — not overwhelmingly — certainly a majority would say, if they could pick a president, it would be Howard Baker.

He was a man of intellectual honesty, a man of incredible demeanor. He had no enemies list. He liked politics. He was very good at it, and he had a core. And I just — I think he would have made a terrific president. He was just a remarkable public servant. He saved Ronald Reagan’s presidency.

JUDY WOODRUFF: As White House chief of staff after he left the Senate.

MARK SHIELDS: White House chief of staff after he resigned — after he retired from the Senate.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Ramesh, he made a name for himself during the Watergate hearings back in the 1970s, but then went on to serve for so many years after that.

RAMESH PONNURU: That’s right.

And he did come into the Reagan White House at a time the White House was very beleaguered and helped have a successful end to that administration. But the Watergate hearings, what is so refreshing about it, looking back, is that here it’s — it’s normal. We’re totally used to the opposition party going after a president based on a scandal.

But here you had somebody from the president’s party holding him accountable. And that’s something you don’t see.

JUDY WOODRUFF: He was a remarkable man.

Ramesh Ponnuru…

MARK SHIELDS: He was a 5’7” giant.


JUDY WOODRUFF: What did you say?

MARK SHIELDS: A 5’7” giant. He truly was a giant. You called him a giant.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Thank you both very much, Mark Shields, Ramesh Ponnuru.