MS. IFILL: Libya, government shutdown showdowns, and the Supreme Court. What all these big stories say about the tests of democracy, tonight on “Washington Week.”
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The violence must stop. Moammar Gadhafi has lost legitimacy to lead and he must leave.
MS. IFILL: But what can the U.S. do to make it happen? Sanctions, Navy ships, no-fly zones, all being debated, but the bloodshed continues. At home there is no blood but it’s a standoff all the same.
SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY) [Senate Minority Leader]: The best way to govern is to quit spending more money than we take in.
REP. STENY HOYER (D-MD): We need to cut spending. We also believe that those cuts must be smart and targeted.
MS. IFILL: Congress gets a two-week reprieve to approve a budget. But the underlying fight is far from over. And at the Supreme Court a near unanimous vote that flies in the face of public opinion.
ALBERT SNYDER [Father of Lance Corporal Matthew Snyder]: My first thought was eight justices don’t have the common sense God gave a goat.
MS. IFILL: Testing the limits of free speech. Covering the week: James Kitfield of National Journal; John Harwood of CNBC and the New York Times; and Joan Biskupic of USA Today.
ANNOUNCER: Award winning reporting and analysis, covering history as it happens, live from our nation’s capital, this is “Washington Week with Gwen Ifill” produced in association with National Journal.
ANNOUNCER: Once again, live from Washington, moderator Gwen Ifill.
MS. IFILL: Good evening. Another week has passed and the crisis in Libya has begun to harden into civil war. U.S. officials have stepped up their criticism of the Gadhafi regime with U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice calling him delusional. And now, President Obama himself is finally condemning Gadhafi by name. But it fell to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to explain why one suggested U.S. response, imposing a no-fly zone in Libyan airspace, might be difficult.
SECRETARY OF DEFENSE ROBERT GATES: A no-fly zone begins with an attack on Libya to destroy the air defenses. That’s the way you do a no-fly zone. And then you can fly planes around the country and not worried about our guys being shot down. But that’s the way it starts.
MS. IFILL: But that’s not the way it ends. James Kitfield writes this week that this dynamic instability could jeopardize the United States’ entire Middle East strategy. How?
MR. KITFIELD: Well, that’s strategy is based on a deal. We have a deal with all these countries and autocrats in the region that basically will ignore what happens inside their country if it will help us advance our regional sort of interests and goals. What’s happening there is not allowing us anymore to ignore what’s going on inside their countries. And, oh, by the way, they’re not that interested in helping us advance our goals right now. They’re sort of interested in trying to hang on for dear life.
MS. IFILL: When you say our goals, what do you mean?
MR. KITFIELD: Well, number one, keep the oil flowing; number two, help contain Iran; number three, cooperate in the war on terror, on counterterrorism operations that we have going throughout that region; and finally, you know, helping us guarantee the security of Israel. And all those things in the short term have become more difficult.
We saw with the oil spiking near $100 a barrel and then going over. You’ve got a number of oil – the protests have spread to a number of wealthy oil producing states like Oman, even some protests today in Saudi Arabia. Bahrain, Libya, Iraq – all oil producers, so that’s a problem. We’ve seen with Iran the first thing, the new interim government in Egypt does is let two Iranian warships go through the Suez Canal, something Mubarak in 40 years never allowed. So that containing Iran could get more difficult. We’ve seen Hezbollah recently pick the prime minister of Lebanon, which is a proxy for Iran. In terms of counterterrorism, there’s concern that Libya, if it goes into a civil war, could become a failed state. It looks a lot Somalia then where there’s an al Qaeda affiliate. We’re also worried that Islamists could hijack some of the democratic transitions in places like Egypt.
And, finally, that 14-to-one vote on the Security Council, protecting Israel from a resolution criticizing on settlements, is a pretty good indicator there’s going to be a pretty lonely fight protecting Israel right now because as these governments become more democratic, they’re going to give voice to the Arab street that is very anti-Israel in terms of settlements and its occupation of the West Bank.
MS. BISKUPIC: You know, there are so many things that are problematic and especially the spike in oil that you talk about that seems like there will be no reprieve. But isn’t there for the long game an advantage here in terms of all these democratic movements over time?
MR. KITFIELD: Sure. I think that’s right and I think you can’t help – I mean, we all feel there’s sort of this kinship – you can’t help to be kind of proud and hopeful for these people trying to get a voice in their own governments, and they’re some pretty rotten governments.
MS. IFILL: Except we don’t know who they are either.
MR. KITFIELD: We’re not sure – you know, each country is different so we don’t know – certainly, in Libya, for instance, we don’t know the opposition. I think we have a better handle on it a bit in Egypt. But, in general, I think it’s pretty well accepted that if these become a more – if it becomes a more normal democratic region, it will quit being quite the breeding ground for terrorism and extremism that we’ve seen. That happens when you have repressive countries, when there’s no other outlet for basically opposition, except for extremism. So that’s one hopeful sign.
There’s a hopeful sign I think that Iran is feeling pretty nervous right now about people-power revolutions. They had the big protests in 2009 after their elections. They can’t be sitting very pretty right now looking all around them and seeing these velvet revolutions. So that’s another possible really good long-term effect.
And I actually think that this peace process with Israel and the Palestinians has been stalemated for so long that this might, might – and I wouldn’t bet on it but might – in the long term help Israel see the fact that the settlements are a non-starter and let’s get to peace negotiations.
MR. HARWOOD: We heard from Secretary Gates about the complications of a no-fly zone. That being the case, what other options do we have? And are we, in fact, relatively powerless in this situation and we’re just commenting from the sidelines or can we have a real effect on the course of events inside what looks like it’s becoming a civil war?
MR. KITFIELD: Well, it depends on how much you want to get involved, how much do you want to put at stake in the Libyan issue right now, which is why I think that a no-fly zone is probably not going to happen because NATO has already said we would need a U.N. Security Council resolution. Well, the U.N. Security Council is not going to pass that resolution. China and Russia don’t believe in this kind of interference in internal affairs. It makes them very nervous. That means that Obama would have to lead a sort of small coalition of the willing unilaterally. You know, when you’re stretched thin in Afghanistan and Iraq and your own secretary of defense said this week that we’d have to be out of our minds to start another war in the Middle East in a largely Muslim country. It does draw a picture that says, are our interests commensurate with actually getting involved in a civil war because, again, this is not massacre of just peaceful protesters. There’s a rebel movement now that’s captured weapons. So we would be putting ourselves in the middle of a civil war. I doubt we’ll do it.
MR. HARWOOD: Everybody agrees boots on the ground total non-starter.
MR. KITFIELD: Oh, absolutely not.
MS. IFILL: Yet you hear John McCain and John Kerry, who don’t agree on much, actually both criticizing or seeming to criticize Secretary Gates about his hesitation on this.
MR. KITFIELD: Well, you know, John McCain – I was surprised by Senator Kerry. John McCain has been very hawkish on these things as has Senator Lieberman. They just came back from the region, and even they say we – aren’t saying we should do it, but they think we should be contemplating is seriously. And I think there is serious contemplation. I just think for the reasons I just outlined, the end of that contemplation will be probably not unless something happens in the future, in the near future that sort of so assaults our sensibilities in terms of killing of civilians that we change – you know, it gets us over that reluctance.
MS. IFILL: And a civil war is a different calculus entirely than what we saw in Egypt and what we saw in Tunisia.
MR. KITFIELD: Absolutely. These people are fighting – the rebels have captured weapons. They have some army units who have turned on them. They’re talking about marching on Tripoli. That looks a lot more like a civil war than the massacre of peaceful protesters.
MS. IFILL: Thanks, James. Well, back here in Washington, President Obama signed a two-week stopgap budget this week which could mean two things: the beginning of the end of Washington’s protracted spending debate or, more likely, the end of the beginning. One indication that movement may be afoot came from House Speaker John Boehner.
REP. JOHN BOEHNER (R-OH) [Speaker of the House]: If you give Congress four weeks, guess what. They’ll take four weeks. If you give them six weeks, they’ll take six weeks. We’ve got two weeks. Let’s get the job done.
MS. IFILL: Another sign came from the White House, which said it is willing to make more budget cuts. Most important, new polls show the American people may not be enthusiastic about this debate, which leaves the negotiations exactly where, John?
MR. HARWOOD: Well, just getting started really. You know, the impetus for cutting the budget has come from these freshmen House Republicans and the Republican leadership in the wake of this tremendous victory they had in the midterm elections. They proposed cutting a lot of money very quickly. Democrats have been playing a bit of a rope-a-dope strategy trying to let them exhaust themselves, express themselves, vent in the House.
They passed a budget bill a couple of weeks ago cutting spending. Now the rubber’s hitting the road. The Senate got that two-week extension, went along with the cuts in the House. Democrats were able to make a deal with Republicans on cuts they considered the least harmful potential cuts in the budget. Now you’ve got Vice President Biden; you’ve got Bill Daley, the chief of staff at the White House, involved. And Democrats are beginning to lay out a strategy.
Part of it involves game playing with numbers. Republicans, when they were trying to make their cuts look bigger for the freshmen, because they know how difficult it is to cut the budget, they counted a certain amount of money that they said had already been cut from the president’s initial budget request. Now Democrats are counting that money and saying, well, we’ve cut that money too.
MS. IFILL: All from a budget that was never enacted.
MR. HARWOOD: Exactly. They’re trying to lay the predicate for some modest additional concessions that they will then cast as going more than halfway toward meeting the Republicans. The goal of the Democrats is to slow the cut process down and try to prevent what they consider and what President Obama considers would be damage to programs that he thinks are essential to what he calls winning the future.
MS. IFILL: But on a day like today when we see good numbers on unemployment for the first time in a long time, 8.9 percent – which still sounds like a lot, but not as bad as it could have been – does that kind of change the backdrop, the background noise, the background music for this kind of debate?
MR. HARWOOD: I think it does. And it’s kind of interesting and it’s a little nuanced. First of all, the public doesn’t feel very good, even though those numbers indicate progress in the economy. We saw in our Wall Street Journal-NBC poll more pessimism about the economy. You still have only 30 percent of the people who think the country’s on the right track. They’re not very fond of Congress. President Obama was at 48 percent.
But the better the economy does, the less people feel urgency about taking a weed whacker to various government programs. Part of the mentality behind the cuts was we’re in a crisis. We’ve got to do something. Let’s cut spending, which is popular in polls, but when you get to the specifics – we had an NBC- Wall Street Journal poll this week that said – showed a lot of people saying, yes, let’s cut some important programs. Then you start listing the programs – Medicare, no; Social Security, no; education, no; unemployment insurance, no. It gets very difficult. And what Democrats are trying to do is get to the point where you lay out specifics, Republicans have to defend specific cuts and they think – and some of the Republican pollsters, frankly, think the Republicans may be getting themselves into hot water.
MR. KITFIELD: I’m sorry. Go ahead.
MS. BISKUPIC: I was just going to say, when I was looking at some specifics of what the cuts would be, I was reminded of that old adage that is attributed to Everett Dirksen but he probably never said it: a billion here, a billion there, and soon you’ll have real money. What is the target figure and what’s realistic between what the Republicans in the House are pushing for and what the Obama administration and other Democrats would go for? And this is the thing I don’t get, John. How much will people really feel this? I mean, will it be felt by people out there?
MR. HARWOOD: Well, I think some of it will be felt. I was talking to a White House official today who said, if you have a freeze in Head Start that just doesn’t mean the program continues as it is. It means tens of thousands of kids will not be participating in Head Start because you need to keep up with additional expenses and new people coming online. Let’s forget the phantom cuts from the budget that wasn’t enacted. Republicans are talking about $61 billion for the rest of the fiscal year from the current level of spending. Democrats have put so far about 10 on the table. I think the Democratic goal is to go to about 20 and say that that’s meeting the Republicans and going as far as they can go without harming the economic recovery and harming job creation.
It’s a tricky argument for the Democrats to even embrace any job cuts because they’re trying to make the argument that Republican cuts would cost hundreds of thousands of jobs. So then the question is, okay, so you’re agreeing to some cuts. How many jobs are you going to cost? Well, the president’s theme right now is everything I’m doing is focused on increasing job creation. So they’re trying to draw a line in the sand somewhere to limit the damage.
MR. KITFIELD: So all the energy seemed like after the election was in the Republican side of the camp and you’re describing the Democrats as rope-a-dope. It sounds like it might be starting to work, though.
MR. HARWOOD: Well, they’re playing for time. They’re in a somewhat better position than they were in November. The president’s certainly in a better position. You know, he cut that bipartisan deal with Republicans in the lame duck session to cut taxes, to additionally – to not only preserve the Bush tax cuts, but to cut payroll taxes. That provided some stimulus for the economy. And so the administration is trying to make the case that I’ve proven that I can work with them and I’m being reasonable. The administration is keeping a very low – a temperate tone to the initial stages of the debate. Republicans are attacking the administration for not going far enough. Democrats are trying to say, we’re being reasonable here. It’s time for them to be reasonable too.
MS. IFILL: And quickly, John. Does it seem to you, like it does to me, that a lot of this energy about this – public energy, public opinion energy, is out in the states, it’s out in Wisconsin, and Indiana, and Ohio, and that here we’re talking about numbers, there they’re talking about real stuff?
MR. HARWOOD: Absolutely. And the counterpart to the tea party freshmen in the House are some of these governors like Scott Walker. But, again, that may be a place we’re playing for time. He might have drawn the line where the public isn’t with him. Seventy percent of the people in the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll said that public employees should have the right to bargain for pensions and benefits the way private sector employees do. They’ve already given on wages. They’re trying to preserve their bargaining rights. They’re not in a bad place on public opinion on that score.
MS. IFILL: Okay. Well, thanks on that. Finally, to the Supreme Court which this week tested the limits of the public’s appreciation of the U.S. Constitution. It came in a case challenging the right of a Kansas church group to picket military funerals, including those of service members killed in war. The decision was not even close – eight to one in favor of the church. Offensive behavior to many, but protected nonetheless, Joan.
MS. BISKUPIC: Definitely protected. And this is a good example of what the First Amendment is all about – protecting distasteful, offensive speech we hate. And the Supreme Court itself took pains in the opinion to talk about how the speaker might be viewed as quite offensive, the Westboro Baptist church in the form of Fred Phelps, the pastor of this small, Kansas-based, family run church that’s known for picketing at military funerals, but the court took pains to say, we don’t like his message necessarily, but he’s got every right to do it.
MS. IFILL: Just to remind people – he pickets – it’s an anti-gay issue.
MS. BISKUPIC: Basically an anti-gay issue. A couple of different points of view that actually the Chief Justice John Roberts cited in his opinion that said are part of the public debate. He’s got issues with what he says Fred Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church have issues with tolerance for homosexuality in America, particularly in the military. He also talks about the clergy, the Catholic clergy and the pope scandal – the priest scandal. All the signs say things like, you know, pope in hell, thank God for dead soldiers, so they’re quite offensive. But I have to say their work is not just at military funerals. I mean, they protested at Elizabeth Edwards’ funeral. They wanted to go to the funeral of the nine-year-old who was killed in the Tucson massacre. So they’re out there a lot. They have a very big presence. And their whole point is to go to high-profile funerals and other –
MS. IFILL: And do outrageous things, which in this case are still protected.
MS. BISKUPIC: Yes, and that’s – exactly. And what the chief justice of the United States said was these are public issues. These are issues of a lot of debate having to do with the military policy, the Catholic clergy. And that’s exactly why they should be protected.
MR. KITFIELD: You don’t see so many eight to one slam dunks. What’s with Alito on this? What’s his argument to why they think they shouldn’t?
MS. BISKUPIC: Well, he saw it –
MS. IFILL: Justice Alito was the one person who –
MS. BISKUPIC: Yes. Justice Samuel Alito, who was the one dissenter. And he also dissented last year on a big free speech case having to do with depictions of animal cruelty that, again, the Supreme Court said, we might not like it but the statute was too broadly written in that case. In this case, they said, look. These protesters – just to remind everyone what the facts were – these protesters were about 1,000 feet away from this Catholic church in rural Maryland where a Marine who was killed in Iraq was being memorialized. And his father – the father, Albert Snyder, who we saw in that earlier piece of tape, said that these people, by being at his son’s funeral, caused him emotional distress. He won a jury verdict about $5 million that was then reversed on free speech grounds by an Appeals Court and then the Supreme Court affirmed that. But what Justice Alito said was, looking, you’re reading free speech protections too broadly, that this was a verbal assault and it does not hurt the public debate in America for this man to have been able to claim some damages.
MR. HARWOOD: Now, it wasn’t reflected in this case, because it was an eight to one case, but in terms of the number of cases that are very evenly balanced in the court, anytime somebody – there’s a change in the composition of the court, people are watching closely. This is the time of year when people do tend to announce that they’re going to leave. Is there any expectation that any of the sitting justices are going to leave? And might that affect the contours of the court in future decisions?
MS. BISKUPIC: Well, it would definitely affect the court in this because it was really very much in terms of precedent at the court. This was consistent and I think no matter what kind of change in membership we have down the road, we’re still going to see this kind of a ruling. But you’re right. Springtime is when we’ve had resignations in the past two years. Justice David Souter announced like on May 1st two years ago; Justice John Paul Stevens in April the last year. I don’t think we are going to get a resignation. Our eldest justice right now is Ruth Bader Ginsburg who’s going to turn 78 this month. And she’s actually in very good health. She has survived two serious bouts of cancer. And I think given the politics of Washington, how polarized things are, that I don’t think any, at least of the liberal justices, want to step down in this kind of atmosphere right before we’re getting into a new election season.
MR. HARWOOD: Is there speculation about any of the others?
MS. BISKUPIC: No. No. No. I think we’re okay.
MS. IFILL: Let me ask you about this case one more thing about it because I’m really curious about what the recourse is for someone who feels like someone has done something that’s over the top offensive to them. And the Supreme Court has said, sorry, Charlie, this is not – you cannot come to us for redress. Where do they go?
MS. BISKUPIC: The individual has nowhere to go. Albert Snyder, who I talked to at length about this case, the father, he has nothing because this was his case brought with a personal injury claim. But what governments can do are to set limits around funerals and cemeteries. And, in fact, over the last couple of years, because of how active the Westboro Baptist church has been, some 46 states have enacted legislation and Congress did too to try to keep people away from funerals and cemeteries but they can’t be oriented toward – the laws can’t be focused on the viewpoints.
MS. IFILL: So the point is to have the states create laws or local governments that can protect these people, not –
MS. BISKUPIC: To regulate the time and place. Yes. Exactly.
MS. IFILL: All right. Thank you, Joan. Thank you, everybody. We have to leave you a few minutes early tonight so you can support your local PBS station, which, in turn, supports us. But the conversation continues online in our “Washington Week Webcast Extra.” We’ll pick up where we left off at pbs.org. Keep up with daily developments every night on the PBS “NewsHour” and we will catch up again around the table next week on “Washington Week.” Good night.