GWEN IFILL: Could developments in Ukraine turn U.S. foreign policy upside down, and how the midterm elections could do the same thing to domestic policy, tonight on “Washington Week.”
VICE PRESIDENT JOSEPH BIDEN: Russia has offered a variety of arguments to justify what is nothing more than a land grab.
SAMANTHA POWER: The United States rejects Russia’s military intervention and land grab in Crimea.
PRIME MINISTER DAVID CAMERON: Russia needs Europe more than Europe needs Russia.
MS. IFILL: The West gambles that tough talk and tougher sanctions can force Russia back from the brink.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The Ukrainians shouldn’t have to choose between the West and Russia.
MS. IFILL: But could Russia’s annexation of Crimea inflame other tensions around the world? On the domestic front, the midterm election fight begins to take shape.
REINCE PRIEBUS: My belief is that it’s going to be a very big win, especially at the U.S. Senate level.
REPRESENTATIVE DEBBIE WASSERMAN SCHULTZ (D-FL): 2014 will be a choice: increasing opportunity for some, versus increasing opportunity for all.
MS. IFILL: But both parties are worried. We explore why.
Covering the week, David Sanger of The New York Times, Michael Crowley of Time magazine, Dan Balz of The Washington Post and Beth Reinhard of The Wall Street Journal.
MS. IFILL: Good evening. Nothing is immediate, nothing is swift. The search for the missing Malaysian jet is turning into an open-ended mystery, the domestic politics we cover here every week is twisting and shifting in the run-up to a critical election, and the standoff over Ukraine and Crimea is turning into a referendum on U.S. foreign policy that extends far beyond Russia. But for now, it’s a sanctions war.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: We’ve emphasized that Russia still has a different path available, one that de-escalates the situation and one that involves Russia pursuing a diplomatic solution with the government in Kiev.
MS. IFILL: De-escalation is a favorite word. National security adviser Susan Rice went to the White House briefing room today.
SUSAN RICE: Our interest is not in seeing the situation escalate and devolve into hot conflict. Our interest is in a diplomatic resolution, de-escalation, and obviously economic support for Ukraine.
MS. IFILL: As David Sanger wrote this week, the standoff with Russia has become only the latest test of President Obama’s approach to foreign policy.
How is that, David?
DAVID SANGER: Well, Gwen, it’s a test because President Obama has really premised his foreign policy over the past five years on three big thoughts. One of them is that the days of superpower Cold War thinking is over. Another one is that the days of these long wars of occupation were over so that the U.S. can solve a lot of military problems it faces with its technological advantage, drones, or cyber, or Special Forces. And the third one is that the U.S. can play the long game and that economic sanctions are frequently the way to go do that. And Iran was obviously the best example of sanctions that drove them to the bargaining table.
The test now is, do any of these work in the case of Russia and Ukraine. So far, they haven’t worked terribly well in Syria, and now the question is, would the president look as if he has pulled back too far from the world if he does not have a stronger response here.
MS. IFILL: So is Ukraine – and Michael, you were in Kiev not long ago – is Ukraine depending on the United States to figure this out?
MICHAEL CROWLEY: Well, there may be Ukrainians who hope that America can come to their rescue. People said things to that effect to me when I was in Kiev: We want Obama to do more. We want America to do more. There’s so much that has to be done for Ukraine. There’s not – it’s not as simple as America coming and the West coming and rescuing this country.
If you look at the aid package that’s being discussed in Congress right now – and there’s optimism that it will be passed at the end of next week – that’s a billion dollars in loan guarantees. This is an economy that needs, probably, $15 billion in the medium term. Longer than that, you’re talking tens and tens of billions of dollars. So – and there’s economic ties to Russia, oil – gas pipelines and other business interests that just connect Ukraine to Russia in a way that makes it very hard for America to come in and solve these problems.
MR. SANGER: This is the tyranny of the age of interdependency. You know, we tell the Russians over the long term, you need us, you need our markets. The Russians tell us, over the short term, Ukraine – and by the way, all the rest of Europe – needs our gas. And Vladimir Putin really has his hand on that valve. And that explains, in part, why it is that the Europeans are really behind the United States in how quickly they’ve laid out this set of sanctions.
MS. IFILL: So is our long game that you alluded to, the administration’s long game, is it backfiring in situations like this?
MR. CROWLEY: Well, it could. You know, there was some encouraging news out of Moscow today when Vladimir Putin said he thought that there didn’t need to be further retaliation by Russia against the steps taken by the West.
MS. IFILL: He also said he wasn’t going to annex Crimea. So –
MR. CROWLEY: That’s right. So we have to have a healthy skepticism. But, you know, you can – we can see this get a lot worse a lot faster. If he proceeds into – again, he’s said he’s not going to do a variety of things that he’s proceeded to do. The latest thing he’s saying he’s not doing is moving to eastern Ukraine, trying to grab more territory. If that happens, I don’t think we’d have a hot war or a shooting war, but we’d have a sort of economic shooting war. The first round of economic sanctions were like a warning shot. The second round that we had just yesterday were sort of rubber bullets. But then if we start targeting, for instance, the Russian financial sector, energy sector, then we are in really all-out economic shooting war that could be very ugly.
DAN BALZ: David, what – I mean, picking up on what Michael just said, what is the reason that the Russians have put so many troops right along the border of Ukraine? What is in Putin’s mind at this point about that?
MR. SANGER: Well, Dan, there are two big theories here. One is that this is all a big head fake, that he put 60,000 troops, or whatever the number is today, on that border. It is to intimidate the Ukrainians into thinking that they could be next, that he could split the country up, that he could build a land bridge down to Crimea, because, remember, Crimea depends on Ukraine for all of its gas, and it’s not connected to the rest of Russia by anything, even a bridge. So that’s one possibility.
The other possibility is that he really is planning to go in and split off at least the Russian-speaking part of Ukraine, exactly what President Obama has said would result in a much greater escalation of sanctions. But he may look at this early sanctions and say, you know, the Europeans, President Obama, they just don’t have their heart in it.
BETH REINHARD: Michael, this is happening at a time, this crisis is happening as the Republican Party is engaged in a pretty robust debate over foreign policy. Is it going to continue its tradition of being, you know, strong on national defense and hawkish, or, you know, this libertarian strain led by Rand Paul that is advocating, you know, less intervention in foreign conflicts? And we’re seeing a lot of support for that in polls.
MR. CROWLEY: Yeah, politically, inside the country, there are two really fascinating story lines. One is the perception of how President Obama’s handling the crisis. Critics are saying that he’s too weak. He’s being pushed around by Vladimir Putin. There’s also this clarifying effect, potentially, within the Republican Party. There has been this long debate – and maybe we’ll call it on the one hand the Rand Paul wing – and he has – he has said, essentially, nobody knew where Crimea was before this crisis started and most people couldn’t find it on a map. It’s not really one of our top priorities. He’s actually backed away from that a little bit and some other comments, I think, because you’re seeing this sort of – we’ll call it the Marco Rubio wing step up and say, we have to be tougher. And for those hawks it’s a chance to really assert that voice that I think they’re most comfortable in as national security Republicans, the projection of American power, standing up for our principles and our values. And there hasn’t been an easy way to say that recently, and I think they’re really seizing on it, and I think it’s a chance for them to regain momentum they had lost within the party.
MS. IFILL: But, you know, the U.S. is – has got a lot more at stake here than just what’s happening either domestically or even what’s happening in the White House about Russia, the eye to eye – the eyeball to eyeball thing we seeing going on between Obama and Putin. And that said, there are nuclear talks underway involving Iran in Vienna right now. There’s cooperation with getting – well, not that he’s going anywhere, but getting Bashar al-Assad out of power in Syria. It seems like all of that is now on tiptoe stance.
MR. SANGER: It is, Gwen. And this is what makes this so complicated, because Putin has ways of getting in the way of other elements of the American agenda. Now, you could argue that before Ukraine even came into the headlines, Putin was not being terribly helpful on Syria, and Assad was gaining power and there was nothing the Russians were going to do to undercut that. They were a bit helpful in pushing Assad to give up the chemical weapons, which we learned this week are about half of them. A little less than half of them are now out of the country.
Iran is a more complex issue. Putin doesn’t want to see Iran get nuclear weapons either, but he may not want to give President Obama the one great foreign policy win that he has within his grasp, which is the possibility of reaching a long-term agreement with the Iranians. And it is sort of turning on its head this question of what would the Obama foreign policy be remembered for, because if the president can’t get an Iran agreement, if he can’t stop the carnage in Syria, which is largely beyond our control, if Europe suddenly is reverse course from 20 years of integration and if China continues being an expansionist power, President Obama runs the risk – it’s too early to tell – but he runs the risk of being viewed as a president who presided over a period of retrenchment.
MS. IFILL: Well, except that he has presided over a period of retrenchment, has he not? He’s pulled us back from two wars. He’s talked about light footprints and soft power. Isn’t that – is that now being proven to not work? The Mitt Romneys of the world certainly think so.
MR. CROWLEY: That’s right. Well, and I think he would interject right away by taking credit for saying, I’ve wound down these two wars. The war in Iraq was winding down anyway, but he will take credit for it, and I think has done a very good job of fighting al-Qaida with drones and keeping the country safe from significant exterior terrorist attack, barring the Boston Marathon bombing.
But I agree with most of what David just said. And actually, when you think about what’s left, it’s the Middle East peace process, which is the great Rock of Sisyphus for one president after another. And he’s pushing that boulder, and it may – he may think that only if I can get this boulder to the top of the hill, I will have a legacy. But I think it’s a real long shot. Fortunately, Russian cooperation on that particular issue is not nearly as important as it is on some of the other issues that we’ve mentioned. So maybe they can pull it out.
MS. IFILL: I was – I was going to call the Middle East peace process a Hail Mary, but I don’t think – (inaudible). Rock of Sisyphus is much better. (Laughter.)
MR. BALZ: Could I say, the president goes abroad next week with what now look to be some very important meetings with the Europeans. What’s his goal? What’s his objective? What could be accomplished in that in terms of the U.S., Russia and Ukraine issue?
MR. SANGER: Well, Dan, the ostensible reason for going abroad is, first, to go to the Nuclear Security Summit, which has been, actually, one of his more significant foreign policy successes, sweeping up the loose nuclear material that’s around the world. You certainly, in a world of this kind of chaos, don’t want to have a lot more of that – and then to go meet the Europeans in what he was hoping would be something that would push forward trade deals. Instead Ukraine is going to be dominating all of this. And I think the big question is, can he get the Europeans on the same page so that they are speaking as toughly to Putin as he is?
MS. IFILL: We’ll talk about that a little bit more during the webcast. Welcome to “Washington Week,” Michael.
MR. CROWLEY: Thank you so much.
MS. IFILL: Moving on to domestic politics, the midterm elections are beginning to come into focus. Everybody’s nervous. The party leaders won’t say so out loud. Republican Party chief Reince Priebus is hoping to capitalize on antipathy toward “Obamacare.”
MR. PRIEBUS: You look at the San Diego mayor’s race, you look at Florida 13, you had the nationalization of Barack Obama and “Obamacare” in both of those places. And as I said before, it is a poisonous issue for Democrats.
MS. IFILL: Democratic Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz says the GOP is overreaching.
REP. WASSERMAN SCHULTZ: I really hope that my counterparts remains bullish and believes the Democrats are in the dumps. They were predicting, up to hours before the polls closed on Election Day in 2012, that we would all be inaugurating President Mitt Romney, too.
MS. IFILL: Neither one of them sounded very convincing to me, Dan.
MR. BALZ: (Laughs.) No!
MS. IFILL: Which party really has the most to worry about?
MR. BALZ: Well, I don’t think it’s close at this moment. I think it’s clearly the Democrats. I mean, this is – this is a midterm election in the sixth year of a presidency. The party in power or that holds the White House almost always loses seats. So that’s just for starters.
The House is very difficult. You know, after the government shutdown there were some Democrats because the Republicans took such a hit, who were saying, well, maybe we have a chance even to take back the House. I don’t think you hear any of them saying that with any – you know, with any truthfulness. The bigger issue is clearly the Senate. Thus, the Republicans need a net of six seats to take back the Senate. They have opportunities in seven states where the Democrats now hold seats that are red states. This is a tough map. And in it –
MS. IFILL: States that Romney won.
MR. BALZ: That Romney won, that are clearly Republican states at the presidential level, and increasingly down the ballot. Some of these have incumbent Democrats running. Some are open seats. It’s harder to defeat an incumbent than it is to pick up an open seat. But nonetheless, these are tough races. And beyond that, you have the state of the Obama presidency and the unhappiness that a lot of people have. His approval ratings nationally are in the low 40s, or maybe 41, 42, 43 percent. In these red states, they are much lower than that, and so he is a drag on these Democratic candidates in these races. So it’s a tough – it’s a tough situation.
MS. IFILL: And yet, Beth, Republicans are worried, too. And their choice is between 2014 and 2016 and whether the focus of policy over politics of those two years.
MS. REINHARD: Right. And it really depends on what type of Republican you ask. If you ask a congressional Republican who’s, you know, interested in maximizing their control of the House and sees the Senate, you know, tantalizing in reach, they would say, you know, keep focusing on 2014. “Obamacare” is working for us. The – President Obama’s – the president’s low approval is working for us. Full steam ahead. All – you know, all sides are looking very favorably for Republicans.
If you talk to folks who are looking ahead to 2016 or thinking about the presidential campaign who remember how poorly Mitt Romney did with Hispanics and Asian-Americans and African-Americans, and not as well with unmarried women, they’re handwringing a little bit and saying, wow, wish we had done immigration reform, because it’s sure going to be hard to do that in 2015.
MR. SANGER: Well, Beth, you mentioned the results of the presidential election. You’ll remember the Republicans did this long sort of autopsy report just a little more than a year ago on that, and they came out with some lessons, particularly about appealing to Hispanic voters, appealing to women and so forth. A year later, what’s the status of that report? Did it really make a difference in the way they are conducting their campaigns for the midterms?
MS. REINHARD: I think the RNC has definitely pointed the party in a certain direction. I mean, they’ve made it clear, these are the priorities. This is the outreach we need to do. And they actually went so far to say, we highly recommend that you take up immigration reform. But, you know, the RNC is a party apparatus. They are not candidates and elected officials. They can only do so much. And, you know, clearly immigration reform is barely alive and we may never see it this cycle. So, I mean, that is, you know, really if you could say what – you know, what was – what hasn’t happened, that’s really the glaring void.
MS. IFILL: And why talk about immigration reform when you can talk about “Obamacare,” which certainly will test a lot better. And the Democrats don’t seem to have an answer.
MR. BALZ: No, the – well, the Democrats think there is a partial answer, which is, if you look at the polling, there’s a new Pew Research Center poll out this week that shows that 53 percent of Americans disapprove of the Affordable Care Act. Those numbers have been pretty static. I mean, they’ve bounced a little bit at certain moments, but basically, since this law was enacted, opposition has been greater than support.
But when you drill down on that, a lot of the people who disapprove of it say elected officials should work to try to make it more effective. A smaller percentage say they should – you know, elected officials should get rid of it. So the Democrats’ view is that a message of sort of mend it, don’t end it, as they put it, is a more effective message than repeal and replace that the Republicans have. There was a test of this in the Florida special election a week ago. The Democrats’ Geoff Garin, who was doing polling down there, Democratic pollster, said that their argument polled better than the Republican argument, and that therefore there is a way for Democrats at least to try to neutralize this issue in the midterm.
Republicans are absolutely convinced, as Reince Priebus said in the setup there, that this is a winning issue for Republicans, and that their – it is a winning issue because it motivates Republican voters, it puts Democrats very much on the defensive and it draws attention to this larger dissatisfaction of the growth of government under the president.
MR. CROWLEY: Dan, about that special election, you know, it’s always somewhat satirical when you have a special election, a standalone election. The party that wins says, this is a bellwether, and we’ve got the momentum, and watch out, we’re on fire. And the party that loses plays it off, local factors, it was a quirk. But in this case, you had David Plouffe saying this was a real wakeup call for Democrats. I wonder if you could just talk about that.
MR. BALZ: He did. I mean, you’re right about special elections. You know, they are poor predictors until they aren’t. And occasionally there is one, but you don’t – only know that in retrospect.
There were some Democrats, after they lost that special election – which was a winnable race for Democrats, not an easy win but a winnable race – who kind of tried to sugarcoat the loss, said, oh, in a special election, this is a really tough district; the electorate tilts way against us. Plouffe basically cut all through that, and he said this should be a screaming siren to us about November, which is to say we have a turnout problem. Democratic turnout between presidential and off-year elections falls. Their coalition shows up less than Republicans. Republicans in off-year elections tend to be an older electorate and a whiter electorate. And so what Plouffe is basically saying is, we have to figure out how to get our voters there. And I think there are a lot of other people in the party who are thinking about it, but it was a way for him to kind of punch through the way of explaining away an unfortunate loss for them.
MS. IFILL: Well, so if motivation is key, and we know who is more motivated in off-year elections and that, generally, unhappy people are more motivated, does that mean that – is that a formula for the tea party wing of the Republican Party to have a big day?
MS. REINHARD: Well, I mean, it certainly looks like the Republican Party is going to have a good November. I mean, whether tea party candidates in particular are going to be victorious in the primaries between now and then –
MS. IFILL: It’s not an opportunity for them?
MS. REINHARD: Well, they have fielded a lot of candidates, and I think, you know, the tea party in some ways has already won in that they’ve steered the party so much – so far to the right. Whether – I don’t know how many, like, individual candidates we’re going to see, you know –
MS. IFILL: Could you say that once Mitch McConnell walks on stage with a gun? (Laughter.)
MS. REINHARD: It’s all over. (Laughter.) No, the other – the other old saw, as referring to what Dan was talking about, you know, it always comes down to turnout, right? It all comes down to that. So –
MR. SANGER: Dan, it’s easy to look at the map and see where the Republicans can pick up seats. Is there any way that you turn that map around and you see any place where Democrats can?
MR. BALZ: Well, there are two places. We just mentioned one: Kentucky. Mitch McConnell, the Republican Senate leader, is in a real fight. He’s got a tea party opponent in the primary. So far, he’s holding his own on that. It doesn’t look like that’s going to be as serious a threat as some people said, but we will see.
But in the general election, he’s facing Secretary of State Alison Lundergram Grimes. And the polling down there right now shows that this is a very tight race.
The other opportunity is in Georgia. Saxby Chambliss is retiring. There are a number of Republicans running for that nomination. We don’t know who their nominee is going to be. The Democrats already have a candidate. It’s Michelle Nunn, who’s the daughter of former senator Sam Nunn. She has centrist credentials. She has his name. And Georgia is a tough state for Democrats. They think over time it’s becoming a more – a better opportunity. So that’s the other ways that they put on the board as one where they might be able to do a pickup.
MS. REINHARD: And, you know, one thing that’s interesting about Alison Lundergram Grimes, in Kentucky, she’s running in a state where, you know, the president is extremely unpopular. But she’s really latched onto the minimum wage issue. She’s not trying to defend “Obamacare.” She doesn’t want the election to be about “Obamacare.” And polls show the minimum wage is very popular, especially among women. Our most recent Wall Street Journal/NBC poll showed women were 65 percent more likely to vote for a candidate who supports a minimum wage increase. So it’s interesting to see how, you know, Democrats like her are trying to steer the conversation away from “Obamacare” and to a more friendly terrain.
MS. IFILL: But how much of a drag or a bonus is it for the president to be as unpopular as he is right now for these two parties?
MS. REINHARD: I mean, it’s definitely a bonus for the Republicans. I mean, virtually every Democratic candidate in a competitive race has either said directly or suggested, you know, no, thank you, Mr. President.
MS. IFILL: You don’t have to come campaign with me.
MS. IFILL: Yes.
MR. BALZ: Yeah, I don’t – I can’t think of good examples of where a president has been under 45 percent and his party hasn’t done anything but lose a lot of seats.
MS. IFILL: OK. Well, we’ll be – we’re going to follow up on that and continue and talk some more about this, especially about the women’s part, because I think it’s really interesting. Thank you all very much. I think we’ve covered the waterfront.
We have to leave you now, but the conversation’s going to continue among us online, on the “Washington Week” webcast extra. It will be streaming live at 8:30 p.m. Eastern time and all week long at pbs.org/washingtonweek. Among other things, we will be talking about how both parties are competing for those women voters. Keep up with daily developments now seven nights a week on the “PBS NewsHour.” And we’ll see you here next week on “Washington Week.” Good night.