Shields and Gerson on 2015’s foreign policy issues, Mario Cuomo’s legacy

Read the Full Transcript

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    And that brings us to the analysis of Shields and Gerson. That's syndicated columnist Mark Shields and Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson.

    So, first, I want to start out with a poll that came out, a Gallup poll, 1,000 Americans sampled. And they say their most important issue throughout the last year has been government.

    And that was interesting to me, because, you know, when you look back at this, 2004 to 2007, it was Iraq, 2008 to 2013, it was the economy, and then, 2014, the government. So these are longstanding concerns. When it was the Iraq war, obviously, that was something a lot of us were concerned about, and then the economy through the financial crisis.

    But this kind of pivotal moment, this turning point that so many people are so concerned about what's happening in government and what's happening in Washington and whether it's even possible to get anything through, let's start — what happens in 2015?

  • MICHAEL GERSON:

    Well, I think it's part of a broader crisis of legitimacy for institutions.

    People are questioning whether our institutions, including government, are up to our challenges. We have got serious challenges on education. We have got serious challenges entitlement reform and other things. And we don't seem — our institutions aren't responding in a way they should. And I think Obamacare played into that, to be honest, where — which faltered at the beginning, and also, you know, shook confidence in institutions.

    So people want their government to work. Even, you know, conservatives want, in certain areas, government to work, and there are real questions about that.

  • MARK SHIELDS:

    I would say that confidence in government has diminished, is slipping. There are reasons for it.

    I don't think it's necessarily distinct from loss of confidence, public confidence, in corporations, in other institutions, private institutions, higher education. It's across the board, religion, the military being the sole exception, which I think has other psychological factors involved, which is, they're doing it and we don't have to do it.

    But I really think, when you look at what happened with the Secret Service, with Veterans Administration, the NSA, I mean, there's a sense of government not working or not working in the interest of the people who wanted it to.

    Countering that, at the end of the year, there was a surge in confidence because — whether because of government policies, in spite of government policies — Democrats would argue the former — that there's been a surge in economy and the president's job rating is the highest it's been in two years. And for the first time since the recession, since the great recession some six years ago, the national economic confidence is in the positive zone.

    So, you know, perhaps — every poll is a snapshot in time, Hari. Maybe that one has passed, and we're heading into a brighter and more optimistic time.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    OK. All right.

    So, let's talk about what's possible in the world of bipartisanship, whether that exists or not, in 2015. Let's start with kind of foreign policy issues. What's likely to be on the table for — both for Congress and the president?

  • MICHAEL GERSON:

    Well, I think we're going to see the continuing crisis of the Middle East dominate on foreign policy.

    First of all, it's real hard to predict these things, because, last year, I'm not sure I would have predicted Ebola or the Ukraine or other things. But we do now have the circumstance in which three former secretaries of defense from this president and the former secretary of state have all been publicly critical of the president's conduct of policy in Syria and Iraq, which has metastasized across the region, produced 200,000 deaths, as — you know, nine million displaced people in the region, and now threatens Lebanon, Jordan and other places and terrorism across the world.

    This is likely to be a major focus. But do we have the policies in place necessary to contain that crisis right now? And our — some of our military has questions about that. And we're going to see that, I think, work itself out with ISIS over the next year.

  • MARK SHIELDS:

    Yes. I mean, I don't pretend to be a prophet about what's going to happen in the world.

    I, of course, did say the Ukraine and Ebola a year ago.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • MARK SHIELDS:

    And I was the first person to identify ISIS out of the entire class picture.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Right.

  • MARK SHIELDS:

    But I think there's going to be — there's going to be an ambivalence, which has been in American foreign policy and defense policy, going to be saying, we have to do more and be more overt and more involved and engaged in combating ISIS, and that is coupled with and tempered by a strong resistance to America reentering.

    And that really is the quandary and the dilemma. I fear that, as the Russian economy plummets and energy prices go down and the oligarchy is threatened and Putin is diminished, that Russia will become more aggressive and more nationalistic, which is only a recipe for trouble.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    Now, what about the sort of situation of troops on the ground?

    It seems that there's been a lot of concern about exactly whether the U.S. withdrew too soon, whether the U.S. committed too many or too few troops in states like Iraq — or countries, I should say, like Iraq or Afghanistan.

    Even today, Ashraf Ghani, I think in a recent interview, said, well, that whole withdrawing by 2016, that could still be negotiable, and the president knows what I'm talking about.

    But we clearly don't know that.

  • MICHAEL GERSON:

    Well, I think the administration claimed that the Iraq war was over, but ISIS didn't believe it was.

    They claimed that the Syrian crisis could be contained. And it clearly has not been contained in the way that was originally intended. And now the claim is that we can leave Afghanistan. And I'm not sure the Taliban are going to cooperate here. So that, I think, is a very live issue.

    What is necessary? We — I don't think anyone has an appetite for troops on the ground in the same way that they have been in the last 10 years in the Middle East. The question is whether this strategy we have of striking from afar, using intelligence capabilities and drones, is sufficient to the defeat of ISIS and the rollback of ISIS. And that is very much an open question.

  • MARK SHIELDS:

    Yes, I would simply add to that, I — I wait and hope that we will have a debate on this subject.

    I mean, the Congress, both parties, has not forced the issue. I mean, this should be national policy. What it has been in the sense is a delegation to the president. You can delegate authority, but you can't delegate responsibility. And the responsibility under the Constitution is with the Congress. It's with the people. We should have a national debate exactly on what we are willing to do.

    We have had ouchless, painless wars, with tax cuts, for the past 15 years, and coffin after coffin has come back, and congressman after congressman and president after president has not gone to the funerals. And Gold Star mothers are not comforted, except by letters and an occasional phone call.

    And this is not a broadly shared sacrifice. It's a violation of the great American principle of the universality of shared sacrifice. And that has been totally missing. And we do need a debate on this. And it's been — it's been dereliction of duty on the part of our leadership and on us, as a people, in not demanding it.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    OK.

    What about domestic policy? Domenico rattled off a list of things. Do you think that there's any possible movement on, say, immigration or Keystone?

  • MICHAEL GERSON:

    Well, first of all, I think that Mark is exactly right that the key over the next year is going to be whether this growth, this serious growth that we're seeing is going to be sustained. That would create an environment that is tougher for Republicans in 2016, not impossible, but tougher. That's the context in which many of our debates take place.

    So I think that that's certainly true. The problem is, there are a bunch of issues, tax reform, trade, that were mentioned that adults in Washington want progress on, that think our country could benefit for — from.

    But we're likely to have a debate on immigration in February with the funding of the Department of Homeland Security that was deferred this last time, and maybe a debate on the debt limit in March that could be knockdown, drag-out funding debates of the kind that we have seen in the past, where both sides are at one another's throat.

    The question is, does that overwhelm? Does it prevent progress on other issues on this agenda that — that are necessary, that most people concede are necessary? And I'm afraid that we're going to see the kind of debates we have seen in the past and that that could really overwhelm, you know, the capacity of our system.

  • MARK SHIELDS:

    I'm a little bit more optimistic.

    I don't think there's a national yearning for more rancor and more name-calling out of Washington. I think there's an interest on the part of Republicans to show that they can be a governing party, something that that's been — there is widespread doubt about.

    There's a certain, obviously, urgency on the part of President Obama to add to or create or — his record for the last two years. I would add to Domenico's list. I would certainly include tax reform. But tax reform requires a lot more than just kind of an agreement that the corporate tax cut ought to be lower. If you're going to raise any revenue, that's going to require real sacrifice, again, real deal-making.

    And there's no Bill Bradley, there's no central figure who's made this his case. And Dave Camp did, and now he's gone from the Congress. And so I think that infrastructure, there is a hope. I mean, when you get a water main breaking in every major city and flooding a block at least on a weekly basis, it seems, it ought to be a reminder that bridges, tunnels, roads, and water systems are part of the national competitiveness, in addition to living a decent life.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    All right, speaking of living a decent life, Mario Cuomo, your thoughts?

  • MICHAEL GERSON:

    Well, I think that there are a class of American politician that are influential people who never became president.

    That's true of Hubert Humphrey. It's true of Scoop Jackson. It's true of Jack Kemp. There are a group of people that really influenced American politics without being president. He belongs in that category.

    There are some orators in American history that are orators of unity or of national purpose. He was an orator of ideological definition. He told Democrats, this is what we can be, this is what we should be. He inspired his party, his ideology, in the same way that Ronald Reagan did in a speech like "A Time for Choosing" in 1964. This is what we want to be.

    That, I think — you know, Bill Clinton eventually won the argument over the future of the Democratic Party with new Democratic ideas, but Mario Cuomo won the soul of the party. And people are still very nostalgic about that, I think.

  • MARK SHIELDS:

    I think it's a good point.

    Harry — what the hell was his name, the great Jewish philosopher and funnyman? Oh, Harry Golden. Harry Golden said he always knew the first Jewish candidate for president would be an Episcopalian.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • MARK SHIELDS:

    Barry Goldwater. And it was just an acknowledgement that it was necessary to Americanize and kind of take off the rough edges if you're going to go national.

    Mario Cuomo didn't speak English until he entered the public schools of South Queens, New York. And he had mastered English. He was a first-rate intellect. Holmes said of Roosevelt that he was a first-rate temperament and a second-rate intellect, which I think was unfair, but Mario Cuomo was a first-rate intellect.

    And I just — he brought to it a gravity and a seriousness. He could deal with any issue, philosophical, political, policy, in a real sense. And I — my one regret that he didn't run for president is, it would have been a great debate. We would have been forced to confront real questions and eternal truths.

    He did — Michael is right. He spoke for the soul of the Democratic Party. In the decade of the 1980s, when he emerged, the Democrats carried one state in 1984, six states in 1980, and 10 states in 1988. They were wiped out, 17 states. And he — to a disappointed, discouraged, dejected Democratic Party, he said, this is who we are, and we must be a family, we must share the burdens and share the blessings.

    And he really did. He did give a great, great lift to a party that needed it and to a nation that needed it.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    All right, Mark Shields, Michael Gerson, thanks so much.

  • MICHAEL GERSON:

    Thank you.

  • MARK SHIELDS:

    Thank you.

Listen to this Segment