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Shields and Brooks on Obama’s year-end assessment, candidates’ tough talk on terror

Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks join Judy Woodruff to discuss the week’s news, including President Obama’s year-end news conference, how presidential candidates of both parties are fielding issues of national security and the breach of a DNC voter database by the Bernie Sanders campaign.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    But first, to the analysis of Shields and Brooks. That is syndicated columnist Mark Shields, and New York Times columnist David Brooks.

    Welcome, gentlemen.

    So, we've been listening to — we heard Margaret just now talking to Hari about the Syria — what may be Syria progress.

    Let's talk about the president. He had a news conference today, David. But look at his record. I mean, he said we're making progress, there are still challenges. Assess at the end of this year, how have his policies worked in Syria, against ISIS, in Iraq, you know, in both countries?

  • DAVID BROOKS, The New York Times:

    Yes, there are a couple of layers here. The first one is, he said quite accurately, we can't stop all these lone wolves. You had a couple out there in San Bernardino. Obviously, we can't stop that.

    Are we making progress? He claims we are. That's highly disputed. ISIS remains magnetic. They're drawing more forces, sometimes they take ground, sometimes they lose ground, it's not clear that we're necessarily making progress against them.

    The third thing and the biggest backdrop is, we've just had for six years, an existentially weak policy in that area. You know, he drew the red line with Assad, he ignored it, he was asked by people in his own administration to be more aggressive with ISIS, early on, he wasn't.

    In my view, we left Iraq too early and destabilized the region. So, the existential issue is one of passivity. And so, we've made some progress recently, but I would not — but he's arguing from a place of weakness because of the things — the mistakes that were made in the past.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Existentially weak position?

  • MARK SHIELDS, Syndicated Columnist:

    Yes, rather than relitigate that, I mean, 14 years of war, there is no appetite in this country for military intervention in the Middle East. The president, I think, most recently has been just caught flat-footed in understandable change in public interest, priorities and concerns. I mean, you have the Russian airliner, vacationing civilians shot down by the same group that then has the attack on Paris and paralyzes that great city at night. And then it's followed up at least by disciples in San Bernardino massacring civilians at a Christmas party.

    It's an understandable switch, a sea change in American attitude and concerns, and from the economy and jobs, to personal safety and survival and concern about terrorism. The White House, the president in particular, just didn't pick that up. I don't know why.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Why not?

  • MARK SHIELDS:

    I don't know why, somebody suggested, disdain for cable news that — or whatever, I don't know. But he didn't. What's been missing, I would suggest, rather than policy difference, because Norman Schwarzkopf, the great general, said it doesn't take courage to order men into battle, it does take courage to go into battle.

    The opposition right now is talking loosely about going in, and getting tough and kicking tail and all the rest of it, but what is missing is any sense of resoluteness, or strength of the president. He talks about it like he's talking about the gross domestic product and how it's grown and interest rates.

    There isn't, to me, anyway —

  • DAVID BROOKS:

    I agree. He hasn't reflected the fear people feel, the concern people feel, that — even the anger and outrage people feel.

  • MARK SHIELDS:

    Yes.

  • DAVID BROOKS:

    But that's because of who — he who says A must say B. And so, if you don't want to get to — if he says A, outrage, serious problem, then you have to have a new and aggressive policy, which he doesn't want to have. He believes in the current policy. It's a moderately aggressive policy, maybe. But if he wanted to step up the rhetoric, he'd have to step up the action and he doesn't want to step up the reaction, therefore, he can't say really, verbalize much.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Well, how do you measure resoluteness? I mean, Mark, you're saying because of his demeanor, he seems low key. Is that how you measure whether someone is on a course they believe in and they're going to stick with?

  • MARK SHIELDS:

    Well, I mean, he was caught, Judy, the president was caught on the red line, or drawing the red line in Syria.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    A few years ago in Syria.

  • MARK SHIELDS:

    I mean, that was — and so — and there is a retreat from that. And, he, you know, whether through bad luck or just bad judgment or bad information, he's equated ISIS to how much geography it holds, and that isn't the fear and the fear isn't whether in fact they do own more acreage or dominate more acreage, or more towns and cities, quite bluntly. To Americans, It's their potential for real damage and anxiety in this country.

    And then he made the reference to them as junior varsity. I mean, it was the sense that, you know, he didn't understand or didn't at least project an understanding of the real risk that these folks presented.

    What he has come from now is the Republicans do not have any difference in — with the exception of Lindsey Graham who says we have —

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    You mean the candidates.

  • MARK SHIELDS:

    Yes.

  • DAVID BROOKS:

    I'm not sure I agree with that. I mean, the speeches that were given — the Obama speeches, compare to the Hillary Clinton speeches, Hillary Clinton laid out a comprehensive plan with multi-prongs on how to deal with Syria, which is much more aggressive than anything Obama is doing. Marco Rubio and Jeb Bush, while not as specific as Clinton, but basically it overlaps a lot of what Clinton says with a few extra things. And Obama hasn't even done that far. He hasn't laid out a comprehensive plan.

    Those three, Clinton, Rubio, Bush, have basically said the Sunnis themselves have to take out ISIS with American or Western air support, and that means defanging Assad, because the Sunnis won't do it as long as they're being barrel bombed.

    And so, that's a strategy. And Obama hasn't likely gone there even. And so, there is been a vacuity as to how he's talking about the issue.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    But how do you — how does the president acknowledge that without giving into what's now described as a climate of fear where everything is something to be afraid of and Americans should be really rattled by what's happened in San Bernardino?

  • MARK SHIELDS:

    Well, I mean, I think a good part of it is the tone, the sense of resoluteness or not. I mean, whether it's Churchill or whatever. I mean, words do matter.

    But where I disagree with David is, you know, they ask the Republicans whether it's Bush or Rubio, oh, yes, yes, we do — we need more drones. We need drones. The president used drones more than anybody in the history of human kind, to much criticism from the international community.

    We need more airstrikes. We are using airstrikes. We need Special Forces. There are Special Forces, without revealing American secrets.

    But nobody, nobody, with the exception of Lindsey Graham is saying, let's go — I mean, Mike Huckabee says, yes, we should send troops but I can't tell you how many because that would be revealing. But I mean, Rubio, they all talk tough, but they really don't come out.

    I agree with you, Hillary Clinton is the one Democrat who does come off as more commander-in-chief-ish.

  • DAVID BROOKS:

    Yes.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Well, I want to ask about the Democrats because, typically, people say when it comes to national security, it plays to the strength of the Republicans. But, David, you're saying Hillary is holding her own in that.

  • DAVID BROOKS:

    Yes. I mean —

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    What about Bernie Sanders?

  • DAVID BROOKS:

    I still think it generally helps Republicans. But if any Democrat can maintain parity, it's going to be Hillary Clinton. People trust her on that.

    But this is a crushing blow. The shift in the news has been a crushing blow to Bernie Sanders. There are other good things have happened to him. He's got a base of support. He's gotten some endorsements. But it's just a crushing blow.

    I think this and some of the Black Lives Matter movement are just — don't play to the strengths. And so, as long as the economy is number one, inequality is number one, that's in his wheelhouse. But especially with the attention shifting to security, that's as far out of the wheelhouse as possible.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Do you agree?

  • MARK SHIELDS:

    Yes, there is two profiles to the party. I mean, the Democrats are the more nurturing party, the party of social justice.

    You ask people, who's better on education? The Democrats. Who's better on climate change or preserving the environment? Democrats. Who's better for widows and orphans? Democrats.

    Who's better on national security and terrorism? The Republicans. Republicans are seen as historically tougher. Whether in fact this is logical, rational, these are the perceptions. So, the Republicans have a double-digit advantage on it.

    I mean, you could go through and look for the papers that — observing any of those on the stage and the only one you find is Lindsey Graham, but they all talk a very tough game.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    But you agree Bernie Sanders has been hurt?

    (CROSSTALK)

  • MARK SHIELDS:

    Bernie Sanders — this is not Bernie Sanders' natural area. He was chairman of veterans committee, but, no, national security is not his strength. And Hillary Clinton is seen as somebody with steel in her spine. She's seen as tough. She's seen as experienced.

    She may not be seen as totally honest and she may not be seen as absolutely likable, but she is seen as tough, and experienced and smart.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Well, there is another Democratic issue that's come up just today, this breach of the Democrats voter party's — voter database.

    The Sanders campaign recognized that there was a technical glitch. They had access for half an hour or more. They say they didn't do anything with that information they had access to. The Clinton campaign says they did. The DNC has now shut down the Sanders' camp access.

    Is this — I mean, right now, the Sanders camp is suing the DNC, the Clinton people are holding news conferences. Is this — what does this add up to, David?

  • DAVID BROOKS:

    Well, the first bad part for the Sanders campus, they look like, you know, they saw a window and grabbed it, and a couple — at least a couple of staffers did. Not just one. A couple of staffers grabbed some information they probably didn't have access to.

    Nonetheless, I do not think that people are going to see Bernie Sanders as a corrupt man.

  • MARK SHIELDS:

    No.

  • DAVID BROOKS:

    That is not his weak spot. So, I don't think he'll be particularly hurt by this.

    What could happen on the other hand is the Clinton campaign is now in the midst of a massive overreaction, on Twitter and in this press conference, massively overreacting and making it look like they are the bully establishment. And I don't know — on the Republican side, there is such a fervent anti-establishment feel, that if somebody had a chance to run against the RNC for that candidate, golden.

    I'm not sure the Democrats are that anti-establishment. But it sure gives Bernie Sanders an opening to say, the big powers in Washington, along with Hillary Clinton are sealing up this game and trying to shut me down, and I think that's fertile line for him.

  • MARK SHIELDS:

    Let me agree with David.

    Bernie Sanders, 2 million donors. Average contribution is $30. Nobody else is even remotely close to that. It's a remarkable campaign. It's gotten bigger crowds in the Republican frontrunner. I mean, he's really been, it's a remarkable candidacy.

    And this — Judy, the window is open, all right? The curtains are up and the pretty girl is standing there in her night gown and the Sanders people look in. They weren't breaking in, they weren't trying to get in but it's available. They look at the information for 30 minutes, OK?

    The Clinton people, the last thing in the world they want to be talking about is electronic data and computers with the Clinton email problem.

    And with Debbie Wasserman, the chair of the Democratic National Committee, having limited the debates to five debates now —

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Democratic.

  • MARK SHIELDS:

    Democratic debates.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Right.

  • MARK SHIELDS:

    One-half — not even one-half as the Republicans. It was open, free party. They limit it to, Saturday night, Saturday night, the lowest TV night of the week, that's when they want it —

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Another one coming up tomorrow night.

  • MARK SHIELDS:

    Tomorrow night, to limit it. Looks like they tilted already in Hillary Clinton's favor.

    And now she's depriving Bernie Sanders' campaign of the one thing they have which is the information? I mean, their campaign was a door-to-door, person-to-person campaign and they're going to deprive them of that? I mean, it just looks like David against Goliath, boy, I'm rooting on David.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    So, what started out as an accusation against the Sanders camp you're saying could end up helping Sanders?

  • DAVID BROOKS:

    Yes, but the question again is how much anti-establishment is in the Democratic Party. Maybe they don't mind the establishment. Yes, I sort of like the people that run my party. Republicans don't think that. They hate the people that run their party. But I'm not sure about the Democrats.

  • MARK SHIELDS:

    Yes, I just think — I think bullying and unfairness. And they've already had criticism from Tulsi Gabbard, the Democratic vice chair of the committee, has criticized Wasserman for the limited number of debates to favor and to tilt in the advantage of Hillary Clinton, already. So, boy, I just think — I think the Clinton people are playing it dumb.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    This may have increased the audience for tomorrow night's Democratic debate.

  • MARK SHIELDS:

    Let's hope.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Mark Shields, David Brooks, thank you.

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