MS. IFILL: Just when you thought the news might slow down, we have a new Supreme Court vacancy, that plus nukes, Karzai, Steele, and tea party politics, tonight on “Washington Week.” After nearly 90 years on the planet and 34 years on the bench, Justice John Paul Stevens steps aside. We look at his past and the court’s future. Just as consequential, two old Cold War foes agree to limit nuclear weapons.
PRES. BARACK OBAMA: A nuclear weapon in the hands of a terrorist is a danger to people everywhere.
MS. IFILL: While the U.S. wrestles with a newly troubled partnership. Afghanistan is the home of Afghans and we own this place.
PRES. HAMID KARZAI: Afghanistan is the home of Afghans and we own this place and our partners are here to help in a cause that’s all of us.
White House Reporter (off-camera): Is Karzai our ally?
ROBERT GIBBS: Karzai is the democratically elected leader of Afghanistan.
MS. IFILL: And at home, the Republican Party searches for a way to crow its activists.
SARAH PALIN: Don’t retreat, reload. And that is not a call for violence. (Applause.)
MS. IFILL: And its party chairman.
MICHAEL STEELE: I hear the leadership. We’re taking steps to make sure that we’re even more, how should we say, fiscally conservative in our spending.
MS. IFILL: Covering the week: Joan Biskupic of USA Today, David Sanger of the “New York Times,” Doyle McManus of the “Los Angeles Times,” and Charles Babington of the Associated Press.
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. After Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, the longest serving member of the bench and its preeminent liberal, announced his impending retirement today; the president praised him and hinted at what’s to come.
PRES. OBAMA: While we cannot replace Justice Stevens’ experience or wisdom, I will seek someone in the coming weeks with similar qualities: an independent mind, a record of excellence and integrity, a fierce dedication to the rule of law, and a keen understanding of how the law affects the daily lives of the American people.
MS. IFILL: But before we get to the handicapping that will certainly consume the next few weeks, let’s talk about Justice Stevens. By the time he retires, he will have become the court’s third longest serving justice, which means he’s going to leave quite a legacy, Joan, what will it be?
MS. BISKUPIC: That’s right. That’s right. And his legacy will mostly be in his last 15 or so years, after he became the most senior justice among the liberals, after Bill Brennan retired, Thurgood Marshall retired, Harry Blackmun retired, because as the senior person on you ideological side, here the left, the power to assign opinions, the power to write the opinions if you wanted. And he used that power quite shrewdly. First of all, he himself penned some important decisions, for example in 2004, when the Supreme Court said for the first time that the Guantanamo detainees had a right to go to federal court. That was his handiwork.
But then more importantly, as this court moved much more to the right with Republican appointees, Justice Stevens was able to navigate the middle and bring over first Sandra Day O’Connor, a Ronald Reagan appointee from 1981, and then after her retirement, Anthony Kennedy for some key decisions in areas, as I said, the Guantanamo detainees, affirmative action, in 2003 when Justice O’Connor was a key vote to uphold the University of Michigan’s affirmative action plan. Justice Stevens was very much a part of that as the most senior liberal.
MS. IFILL: Death penalty –
MS. BISKUPIC: Yes, he helped – he both wrote opinions and then assigned key opinions that limited the reach of the death penalty, for example for juveniles and the mentally retarded.
MS. IFILL: But he was appointed by President Ford.
MS. BISKUPIC: Yes, yes.
MS. IFILL: So did the court move or did he move?
MS. BISKUPIC: That’s a great question and it also shows how a president’s legacy – 1975, in December, was when he came on and Gerald Ford obviously long gone. And here is his man’s lifetime appointment. A little of both, Gwen. The court definitely shifted. We had a court in 1975 that John Paul Stevens actually did look like he was more on the right wing, but it was much more of a centrist then. And so the court shifted with almost every appointment since he came on. With maybe one or two exceptions, the court became more conservative. But – and he likes to point that out more than he likes to say that he changed, but he did a little bit. You compare some of his votes on affirmative action when he was new on the court to where he is today, and he shifted a little bit to the left. I think he also took very seriously his role as the leader on the liberal side.
MR. MCMANUS: Joan, can we go ahead and talk about who comes next? This is President Obama’s second nomination for the court coming up. He’s getting a chance to shape a chunk of the court. Presumably it’ll be a liberal, but what is he going to be looking for?
MS. BISKUPIC: That’s so right. You think Jimmy Carter never had an opportunity in his four years of his presidency and here is President Obama and – two and two years. So this is important. Now, he is, again, going to succeed a liberal. He’s going to take someone who’s a progressive liberal likely and have that person succeed John Paul Stevens. So it might not be – it obviously won’t be a radical shift, but it will still – it will bolster with a much younger person obviously the left side of the court.
I presume that he’ll do what he’s done with some of these lower court nominees -- not be a real flamethrower. He’s not going to pick some of our favorite liberals out there who would make this court much more interesting to go up against somebody of the likes of Antonin Scalia, but some of the names on the shortlist that I can mention already are people who were considered seriously last year, when the president chose Sonia Sotomayor: U.S. Solicitor General Elena Kagan, who used to be Harvard Law School dean. She was the first female to lead Harvard Law School. She’s the first female to take this role, very prominent role as the government’s top lawyer before the Supreme Court. I think she has a very strong chance. President Obama did interview her last time.
An Appeals Court judge from the Chicago based Seventh Circuit, Diane Wood, was also considered by President Obama. She’s someone who knew Obama from Chicago, from his time in Chicago also.
And also the third person who he interviewed last time, who was runner up, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano. Now, she’s had a more rocky political year than the other two and that might hurt her.
MR. SANGER: Joan, you mentioned that one of Justice Stevens’ biggest accomplishments was that he knew how to navigate the middle. How important is it to President Obama to pick somebody who could also navigate the middle, which might argue against somebody who would be considered a greater liberal?
MS. IFILL: Well, the president himself seems to be the kind of person who wants to navigate the middle, but he’s getting a lot of pressure from the left, saying, “look, can’t we go back to the old days when a liberal was really a liberal?” Because when we talk about the left wing of the court now, we’re not talking about Thurgood Marshall or William Brennan. We’re talking about people who are much more –
MS. IFILL: Accommodationist because –
MS. BISKUPIC: – yes and pragmatic – and pragmatic and leaning over. The Clinton appointees, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer were much more to the right of Bill Brennan and Thurgood Marshall. So there’s going to be a lot of pressure in that regard from his base, from the left base. But how much of fight he wants, that’s a big question.
MR. BABINGTON: Very quickly, who becomes the liberal leader in this court once he’s gone?
MS. BISKUPIC: Well, the next most senior person will be Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who was appointed by Bill Clinton. She’s 77. She’s had two serious bouts with cancer. She will be in name that person and she will have the power of assignment for the left, but the question is can she build the same coalitions?
MS. IFILL: Well, huge development today, which we’re expecting, but still we love Supreme Court vacancies because we’re talking about it a lot.
Other big developments have been incurring as well on the other side of the Atlantic, deep inside White House, and next week here in Washington, as dozens of world leaders gather to talk about the nuclear future. We saw the pump and the circumstance in Prague with the Russian President Medvedev, but how much of this evolving nuclear debate is bringing the president closer to keeping his promise to make nuclear weapons obsolete, David?
MR. SANGER: Well, Gwen, I went to interview the president earlier this week on this and the first thing he repeated was something he said before in speeches, which is nuclear weapons are not going to be obsolete in his lifetime. But he clearly thinks that he can make a difference in pushing the country back in that direction. And all three things that we have now seen – the new nuclear strategy that came out this past week, the signing of the START treaty, and next week’s nuclear summit, which is going to be the biggest gathering of world leaders on a single topic, brought together by an American president since Franklin Roosevelt first called for the meeting that created the UN. He didn’t live long enough before it happened. But – so it’s going to be a big and quite wild week.
How do these all come together? The START treaty, which was signed in Prague yesterday, it’s all about trying to close down of the old Cold War stuff. This was about limiting the number of weapons that we and the Russians put out. As a treaty, it’s perfectly fine, but the cuts are not very deep.
The new nuclear strategy that came out earlier in the week, that was really interesting. First, it commits the United States not to build any new nuclear weapons. Secondly, it comes very close to, but not quite over the line of creating a no first use commitment by the U.S. What President Obama said was if you are a signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in good standing – and we’ll come back to that in a moment – then the United States would never threaten to use a nuclear weapon against you, even if you attack the U.S. with biological –
MS. IFILL: Which got him in trouble with conservatives as well as his failure to go far enough brought him in trouble with liberals.
MR. SANGER: It did. It did. And this policy did not go, I think, as far as the liberals would have liked or as far as the conservatives feared. But the conservatives leaped on it. Sarah Palin did in particular. And then President Obama told George Stephanopoulos that he didn’t think that Sarah Palin was necessarily the most skilled nuclear strategist he wanted to listen to.
The most interesting thing in that new strategy is that it creates this exemption that says “if you’re outside the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, we may paint a big X on you.” And that was all a better run in North Korea.
MR. BABINGTON: But if you have that exemption, if they don’t fit in the new structure or they’re out of it, is that – what incentive is there for them to behave?
MR. SANGER: Good question, Chuck. In the Bush administration, they called Iran and North Korea rogue states. President Obama, in the interview, called them outlier states.
MS. IFILL: I noticed that, so what difference does that make?
MR. SANGER: The difference, I think that he was trying to convey was, if they changed their behavior, they could come back in within the immunities of this treaty and have a guarantee the U.S. would never use a weapon against them. So he was saying they could change behavior without changing the regime.
MS. BISKUPIC: You mentioned Sarah Palin. One complaint that she did make that he wasn’t as dismissive about is the idea, “oh, we’re not going to be as safe.” Really, what does the president say to that in terms of if we hedge back, are we as safe as he asserts?
MR. SANGER: The nuclear arsenal we have right now is useful really only for deterring a nuclear attack on the United States of the conventional kind, from Russia or China, which seems like the least likely problem. The president has said many times he thinks a much bigger problem is that you lose some nuclear materials somewhere and a terrorist gets a hold of it and sets it off in an American city. Deterrence doesn’t help you for that. And that’s what the nuclear summit is all about.
MR. MCMANUS: And what can you really accomplish, David, in what is it, a day and a half summit? What does that cover and what does?
MS. IFILL: More prompt, more circumstance.
MR. SANGER: More prompt, more circumstance. At the end of the interview, he said, you know, we’re not just going to have some gauzy communiqué at the end. Well, the language has been floating around town. Looks pretty gauzy to me. But I think what they’re going to try to do is get each country that is coming, and there are, I think I’ve last counted, 47, to issue specific action plans of what they’ll do to lock down material. In part that’s because there was the United Nations resolution that passed two or three years ago, requiring them to do that and almost no one’s paid attention to it.
MS. IFILL: All right. Well, we’ll be waiting to the gridlock here in Washington, while they’re all here, not that you’re not welcome.
MR. SANGER: Stay on the subways.
MS. IFILL: Exactly. (Laughter.) Well, while the President Obama – (inaudible) –appeared that we’re making nice and progress, the last few months have seen a steadily deteriorating relationship with another U.S. ally, Afghan President Hamid Karzai. The pattern has become familiar by now – criticism from Karzai, pushback from the president or the secretary of state, or the national security advisor, mutual claims of misunderstanding, rinse, and repeat. Doyle’s just returned from a reporting trip to Kandahar, side of an upcoming summer offensive, perhaps that provides a clue to the Karzai puzzle, or is it a puzzle, Doyle?
MR. MCMANUS: Well, it is a puzzle, but it’s so familiar by now, it should be less of one, and you’re right. I think the impending offensive in Kandahar is part of it. Look, Hamid Karzai is an Afghan politician. He’s an emotional man. A little history may be useful here.
He ran for reelection last year, saying he was the one Afghan national leader who would stand up to the foreigners. Now, that’s kind of a paradoxical claim because it’s the foreigners’ aid, it’s the foreigners’ troops that are keeping him in power. But that was the pitch he made. And as you’ll recall from last year, the Obama administration didn’t really want him to win that election. They spent part of the year hoping they could find someone else to win it instead –
MS. IFILL: And he remembers that.
MR. MCMANUS: – he remembers that. Politicians keep grudges. Afghan politicians, like American politicians keep grudges. Now, Karzai is under a lot of pressure on a lot of fronts. The Obama administration and others are pushing him on the corruption issue. That’s not easy for him to clean up because a great deal of the corruption comes from his own government, his own supporters, his own family. And they’re also pressing him because this offensive this summer, in which a large part of the Obama surge is going into Kandahar, well that’s the Karzai family’s home town. They want Karzai – the Americans want Karzai to stand up and endorse and even lead that offensive as a political leader.
He went down to Kandahar last week to give a speech before a Shura, a council of the elders, and the American hope was that he would say, this offensive is a good thing. He couldn’t do it.
He got up there with General McChrystal next to him. He heard the complaints of the local leaders, who are terribly worried naturally about an offensive happening in their town. And he said, “I hear your complaints. I’ll make sure this doesn’t go ahead unless you’re comfortable with it.” So he only got half way there. That was part of what led to the back and forth.
MR. SANGER: Doyle, I’ve been struck by the tone of the White House. For weeks, they have been saying to us, corruption’s got to get cleaned up. If this guy doesn’t create a force so we can transfer over to, well the U.S. will never be able to get out, so forth. Today, the theme was very much, big misunderstanding, nobody’s really leaning on that hard on corruption, really wonderful guy, president’s been writing him letters.
MR. MCMANUS: Not quite wonderful – (laughter) – but “legitimate” was a word that was used. “Respected” was a word. “Wonderful,” you’re not going to hear. Now, there’s enormous frustration in the White House and at the administration over this problem.
Look, there – David, there basically have been two schools of thought on how to deal with the perplexing Hamid Karzai. You could be nice to him. That’s what George W. Bush tried, not many results. Or you can be tough.
MR. SANGER: Who talked to him every two weeks.
MR. MCMANUS: Exactly, and in those days, I’m told, Karzai ignored the tough messages because he was always hearing from Bush that he was his best friend. Okay. Or you can come out tough, which is what Obama and Joe Biden did in this administration. Karzai gets his back up. So we’ve gotten at the end of this cycle now, where the administration is sort of playing good cop, bad cop. Tough message, do something. We didn’t mean to threaten you. We didn’t mean to be disrespectful. None of this is showing results, to tell you the truth.
MS. BISKUPIC: Well that said – and some people – it’s always just this bad chemistry between these leaders, but it’s real substantive lacking on the ground.
MR. MCMANUS: It is substantive because – look, the administration has concluded, through sad experience, that Hamid Karzai is probably not part of the solution in Afghanistan. So what they’re trying to do is build up local leaders. There’re some effective ministers. How can you build things that do work around them? What they do need Hamid Karzai to do or to not do is to not obstruct, is to not remove these people, to not get in the way. So the relationship still is important.
MR. BABINGTON: Politics aside, how is the war going in Afghanistan?
MR. MCMANUS: Well, that is the fundamental question.
MS. IFILL: And can politics be put aside even on –
MR. MCMANUS: Exactly, politics can’t be put aside. We will know after this summer offensive. General McChrystal is acutely aware that President Obama’s timetable has a review this December.
We’ve all focused on that July of 2011 date. This December is the first review. He wants to show results. Here is the problem. He knows he can show military results, but for all of that to work, there has to be a government that comes in behind. There has to be an effective police force that comes in behind. And those all depend in part on Hamid Karzai’s government, and that’s the stuff that’s lagging.
MS. IFILL: Doyle, we’re going to talk to you some more about your trip and your impressions on our webcast. So you guys are going to have to call it up.
Finally, tonight, we take a look at the state of the Republican Party. With 2010 and 2012 elections looming, the GOP is on the hunt for a workable election strategy. One approach is to knock off vulnerable Democrats. Bart Stupak, the antiabortion Michigan congressman, who nearly derailed the health care bill, he fell victim to that today.
REP. BART STUPAK (D-MI): Last night and early this morning, I informed Democratic leaders and key supporters that I would not seek reelection in the Congress. I’ve struggled with this decision. I wanted to leave a couple of times, but I always thought there was one more job to be done.
MS. IFILL: But Republicans may have some squabbles to settle among themselves first, the biggest one, concerning lightning rod party Chairman Michael Steele.
MR. STEELE: I know a lot of people want to make more of it than there is and those 71 percent on Capitol Hill, those unnamed Republicans who don’t like me, well, I understand that. But I’ll continue to work hard and try to win more races to get a majority in the Congress this November.
MS. IFILL: Thank goodness he understands it, Chuck. So of the two distractions, kind of the tea party conservatives and Michael Steele, which is the biggest one.
MR. BABINGTON: Well, probably Steele might be the easier one to deal with in a way, Gwen, in that most of the Republicans I’ve talked with say he’s probably all right in terms of holding on to his job. That doesn’t mean he will be as affected. They can sort of get around him by funneling money to other groups and that sort of thing. The big question mark and the fascinating story with Republican politics now is the tea party. And the question there is can the Republicans harness all that energy or do they get consumed by it? And I think this can be the best political story to watch in the coming year.
MS. IFILL: Okay, so I’ve never understood what is – is there such a thing as the tea party or is it just a handy plate way of describing a lot of people who are unhappy about a lot of different things, much as what happened on the left, if you recall.
MR. BABINGTON: Very much so, Gwen. In fact, you often hear Democrats talking – they’re kind of wiping their brow in a way because they’re saying, we went through that for years, where you had the real antiwar left, the hippies and all that. That gave our party a bad name with centrists. And it took the Democrats a long time to leave that down. And now, they see that – at least the Democrats are kind of hoping that that’s how the effect is going to be on the Republicans. So there’s not – you’re exactly right. There’s no organization. There’s no tea party, but boy, there’s a lot of energy and is really remarkable. In some polls, I’m not sure you should trust them, say more people identify themselves as tea party people than Republicans. That’s quite remarkable.
MS. BISKUPIC: But how do you measure how effective they are? We obviously have Massachusetts, where they played some role. But how do we know and how do the other Republicans actually know how effective they are?
MR. BABINGTON: We don’t know, Joan, and we won’t really know until the November elections. And it’s a really good point because tea party activists, as we call them, this term, they turn out in big numbers for these rallies and that sort of thing. But if you talk with them, a lot of them are really not political people. And they’ll tell you that. I haven’t voted in the past. And so you have – now, so perhaps they are political now. Perhaps they will absolutely go to the polls, but it’s also possible that after this sort of head rush and all this enthusiasm, they might turn their backs from the political system, again, because remember. They’re not so crazy about Republicans either. They – that’s the big danger for the Republican Party.
MR. SANGER: Chuck, American history is filled with these splinter parties like this, happened in the 1800, happened when Teddy Roosevelt had to run for a second term. When you look at that history, it almost always suggests these burnouts. Is there any reason to believe that this is different? Is there’s some different dynamic underway now?
MR. BABINGTON: You’re exactly right about Roosevelt (boomers ?) party. Repeatedly throughout American history, a third party will not work, Ross Perot and what have you. So if the tea party becomes a third party, literally, on the ballot, it almost surely will fail.
What the Republicans are hoping that they can do is say, look, we are, obviously we’re the conservative party of the two parties, but we’re an acceptable. We’re conservative enough. And that’s where they’re having problems. These tea party activists are saying to some of the most Republicans, no, you’re not conservative enough and I’m as unhappy with you as I am with –
MS. IFILL: Which is why Sarah Palin had to go to Arizona and campaign for John McCain.
MR. MCMANUS: Well, talk about that, Chuck, a little bit because I would imagine if you were a Republican senator, governor, whatever, thinking about running for president, you’d have a temptation to go out and try and capture that set of tea party militants. Has anyone succeeded in that yet? Is anybody the tea party frontrunner?
MR. BABINGTON: Well, the most interesting thing, Doyle, is that in many ways this is frustrating for these people because, look – Mitt Romney, one of the things that brought him to national prominence was his health care work as governor of Massachusetts. Tim Pawlenty, governor of Minnesota, pragmatic governor who gets a lot done. He took stimulus money to help, like most governors do. And now, those guys are getting clobbered by the tea party. And they’re having to do this dance to try to explain why they did that.
MS. IFILL: A quick final thing. It occurs to me – is maybe the tea party going to rescue someone like Michael Steele? As he says, “hey, listen, I’m just an outsider. That’s why the insiders hate me.”
MR. BABINGTON: I suppose, Gwen. He had a meeting a couple of months ago. It didn’t go very well. It wasn’t terrible. It was a little awkward. Again, I think a lot of tea party people see that – the RNC is part of a political structure that they’re really not enamored of.
MS. IFILL: Okay, well thanks. We’ll see how that plays out too. At least it’s the gift that keeps on giving. Thank you, everyone. We’ll keep an eye on the big nuclear summit meeting here next week. For full coverage, be sure to tune in every night to the PBS “NewsHour.” And when you have a minute, check us out online for the latest reporting from our panelists and to send in your comments and questions for our “Washington Week” Webcast Extra. Find us at pbs.org/Washingtonweek. See you next week on “Washington Week.” Good night.