GWEN IFILL: Americans may have given thanks for many things this holiday, but in many cases it’s not for the people who run their government. We hear what you have to say tonight on “Washington Week.”
ROBERT MCCULLOCH (St. Louis County prosecuting attorney): (From videotape.) We determined that no probable cause exists to file any charge against Officer Wilson.
PROTESTER IN FERGUSON, MISSOURI: (From videotape.) What are you saying, that our lives are not equal? Our lives are not worthy of not even a day in court?
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: (From videotape.) We need to recognize that the situation in Ferguson speaks to broader challenges that we still face as a nation.
MS. IFILL: As the holidays rev up, we enter a season of discontent -
WOMAN: (From videotape.) When are they going to stop fighting with each other and start representing their constituents?
MAN: (From videotape.) I don’t understand why they’re spineless, you know. It’s just an embarrassment.
MS. IFILL: - as citizens demand more of their government, but worry that they are getting less. Plus –
DEFENSE SECRETARY CHUCK HAGEL: (From videotape.) I have today submitted my resignation as secretary of defense.
MS. IFILL: - why the Pentagon chief is stepping down after just two years on the job. Leadership, crises, and the ebb and flow of politics - is there a long view to be had? We ask you and the reporters covering the holiday week: Peter Baker, chief White House correspondent for The New York Times; Dan Balz, chief correspondent for The Washington Post; Susan Davis, chief congressional correspondent for USA Today; and Pierre Thomas, senior justice correspondent for ABC News.
ANNOUNCER: Award-winning reporting and analysis, covering history as it happens, from our nation’s capital, this is “Washington Week with Gwen Ifill.”
MS. IFILL: Good evening. We are bringing you a slightly different program this week. That’s because we reached out to you to hear what you want to talk about, and several of you get to play the role of fifth panelist tonight.
This week’s biggest story comes from Ferguson, Missouri, where Darren Wilson, the white police officer who killed black teenager Michael Brown, was not indicted by a grand jury. The debate that preceded that decision had cast a shadow for 107 days. And it’s not over yet.
John Ripandelli, a viewer from Tallahassee, Florida, wrote this: “The grand jury has not cleared Officer Wilson. It simply has avoided putting him on trial. A trial would have settled his innocence or guilt in a non-secret, open-to-the-public way. Now controversy is left alive, and Wilson is left in limbo for life.”
Pierre, what kind of challenge does that present for the government and for law enforcement?
PIERRE THOMAS: The attention and the focus is now squarely on the Department of Justice. If there are going to be criminal charges, they are going to have to be the entity that does it. The Justice Department has a very high threshold in this case. They would have to prove that Officer Wilson’s actions were unreasonable and that he intentionally violated Michael Brown’s constitutional rights.
It’s a high threshold, but I can tell you the investigation is quite vigorous. And I think where it’s going to differ somewhat from what the state investigation has done is that they will look a lot more deeply into Officer Wilson’s background in terms of did he have any kind of excessive-force complaints against him. Also they’ll look at Michael Brown’s history to see did this young man have any kind of history of significant violence.
MS. IFILL: The prosecutor, McCulloch, left the distinct impression the other night that he and the Justice Department were in lock step, at least on the evidence in this. Was that overstating it?
MR. THOMAS: Well, the attorney general put out a statement quickly that night, saying that the Justice Department investigation was, quote, “independent and ongoing.” And he also did an on-camera statement yesterday where I think he tried to make it very, very clear that he’s not in lock step necessarily with that prosecutor.
MS. IFILL: So Peter, the White House obviously has a challenge here, as it does periodically on these types of issues. Are they between – is the president between a rock and a hard place again?
PETER BAKER: Yeah, it’s a terrible place for him, one place he’s not very comfortable in. He came out within 90 minutes of the grand jury decision being announced that night to appeal for calm on television. I think he was left with a split-screen image that didn’t satisfy anyone – probably not him either – in which, you know, on the one hand, you had him talking about calm. And in the other, you saw, you know, teargas canisters being deployed and the violence in the streets.
You know, there was pressure on him to go to Ferguson to actually try to directly engage in this. And it’s – he’s trying to find a balance, as all presidents do in these circumstances, between channeling the angst and channeling the very real passions and emotions of the people who are upset about this, while not, you know, interfering directly into a judicial process, into a law enforcement process.
MS. IFILL: One of the – I listened to the president’s statement on the radio that night, and I didn’t get the split screen that a lot of people did, which reminds me about how complicated this can be in terms of images and perceptions for elected officials. I’m thinking of Jay Nixon, the governor of Missouri. He’s spent a lot of time with governors. This seems to be a unique set of challenges.
DAN BALZ: Well, it’s terribly difficult in a different way than President Obama has to deal with it, but because it is right there, he’s gotten second-guessed every step of the way, and often for good reason. I mean, he has often not seemed like he has been quite on top of things or knowing what the right step at the right moment is, if anyone does in those circumstances.
MS. IFILL: Can, yeah.
MR. BALZ: I mean, you know, they’re terribly difficult to try to work through those different challenges. But I don’t think the work that he has done has been very universally judged to have contributed in a positive way to the situation there.
MS. IFILL: And Sue, I haven’t heard a peep from anybody on Capitol Hill about this. I mean, it seems awfully quiet.
SUSAN DAVIS: It is. I mean, in some ways there’s not really a congressional role to draw a direct link to what happened in Ferguson. I did think there was an overwhelming number of responses from lawmakers, particularly in the Congressional Black Caucus.
John Conyers and John Lewis, who were both involved in the civil rights movement, put out, I thought, particularly poignant statements. And Conyers’ statement was, you know, there’s a much bigger issue here than just what happened between Michael Brown and this one incident, and there’s a larger conversation that does need to go on.
The one legislative thing, I would say, that is significant and may be revived by Ferguson is there is a bipartisan effort by Cory Booker and Rand Paul to do a pretty big overhaul of the criminal justice system and sentencing reform; in large part – and Rand Paul has been very vocal about this – the inequities in the system and how we see – how we jail black men versus white men, and trying to actually find a legislative solution there.
MS. IFILL: So much of this is about leadership and about who gets to lead. And many of you were thinking more cosmically about where Washington is these days. If the election showed us anything is that many of you are sick to death of the debates and the disputes.
LESLIE (Kansas City): (From videotape.) In the context of political leadership actually doing the jobs to which they were elected, mediating or ameliorating perplexing and challenging issues, don’t they recognize that absolutist vitriol and demagogic ideology harden hearts and perpetuate conflict? I am concerned that the current words warfare being waged across our country is not only destabilizing our democracy, but corrupting a generation of leadership.
MS. IFILL: Sue, I want to actually start with you on that, because that’s heavy, and it’s directed exactly at the kinds of standoffs we see in Congress.
MS. DAVIS: I think that’s right. I think – well, this is a question we hear a lot, and particularly when you cover political campaigns, is what good person in their right mind would want to run for political office in the current climate?
I would argue that I think a lot of that is linked to the reliance on fundraising and how the money that’s involved in politics and the corrupting factor there, that people just – just the sheer breadth of money you have to run for major office.
I don’t necessarily know if we can gauge the tenor and tone of politics now to – if you take the long view over the history of American politics, we’ve had pretty ugly, voracious political debates in this country. So I’m not sure that this, I would even consider, is sort of the apex of that.
As far as next-generation political leaders go, I would say that I still think there’s a tremendous number of rising stars in elected office who are young, who have new ideas, and who are not necessarily beholden to that kind of language. Even in the latest election, I would think Cory Gardner, someone like him that Republicans point to as sort of a sunny optimist –
MS. IFILL: The new senator from Colorado.
MS. DAVIS: - the new senator from Colorado – has sort of an optimistic view of conservatism. And people are pointing to him as saying this is somebody we can point to.
MS. IFILL: But let’s talk a little bit about what it takes to serve, not just –
MS. DAVIS: Yeah.
MS. IFILL: - to be elected to office. We saw this week the secretary of defense, former Senator Chuck Hagel, stepped down, only two years on the job. And maybe that’s because the job is too hard. Maybe it’s because he wasn’t the right fit; depends who you talk to.
MR. BAKER: Yeah. No, he didn’t have a great tenure, I think. It probably wasn’t satisfying to him either; third secretary of defense for President Obama, now heading to fourth after six years. Hagel was appointed with the idea that he would draw down the war in Afghanistan, that he would draw down some of the spending in the Pentagon and prepare for a new era. We’re now heading in the opposite direction. We’re now engaged in a new war in Iraq and Syria, a different kind of war.
And he never really seemed to click with the president. There definitely seems to be a disconnect when you hear the stories from either the Pentagon or the White House as they describe Situation Room meetings, where Senator – Secretary Hagel was largely quiet. He says, well, he saved his advice separately for the president. The president was turning more and more to his chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Dempsey. It didn’t seem to be a relationship that was working.
MS. IFILL: Well, let’s talk some more about relationships and talk a little bit more about policy, because there’s another issue that never seems to resolve itself, and that’s health care. And since so many Republicans were elected by promising to take an ax to the Affordable Care Act, and since the Supreme Court may beat them to the punch, questions like this one matter.
“If we get rid of the health care plan,” this viewer wrote, “that we have in place now, what is the backup plan we replace this with?”
MR. BALZ: Nice of you to ask me to answer that question.
MS. IFILL: Yes, I thought so.
MR. BALZ: Well, the backup plan is nonexistent at this point. There are a variety of ideas within the Republican Party about what to do. Individual members of Congress, some governors – Governor Jindal of Louisiana has put forth a plan. They all are similar in terms of principles. They would rely more on free-market competition. They would allow health plans across state lines, insurance across state lines.
But no one has come up with something that seems to be able to get a consensus within the Republican Party. And one of the challenges they face is that there are a lot of things in this law - even though people don’t like the law in the abstract, a lot of the individual pieces are very well liked. And navigating through keeping the parts that people like and pulling apart the rest is really much more difficult than anybody gives it credit for.
MS. IFILL: And Pierre, even though the House has voted, like, a hundred times to try to repeal this, the Supreme Court may end up being the one that really has a say in this next session about what – not the next session; the current session – about what happens to it.
MR. THOMAS: Well, a lot of administration officials who obviously support the law are worried that the Supreme Court is the wild card, that they could make significant change and because the whole thing starts to fall apart. They are hopeful that won’t happen, but clearly this law is such a controversial law.
And it epitomizes what a lot of the viewers are talking about, that it shows Congress unwilling to do what it seemed to be a generation ago; that lawmakers, at the end of the day, even when they fought for weeks, sometimes months, would have a moment when they would sit down and resolve issues. And that does not seem to happen very often in Washington.
MS. IFILL: Congress is going to take this up again? Is this going to be a big, big fight again, just to say that they did it?
MS. DAVIS: I think they’re going to do it to say that they did it. I don’t think that repeal is really in the orbit of things that are possible. Obviously, even if they – they’re going to have Congress, but even if they pass it, it’s going to meet with President Obama’s veto.
I think the most likely thing – and there’s some movement within Republican circles to try and have some kind of imprint on health care, to try and improve the system. I mean, there are still a lot of implementation issues that this has. But at the same time, though, there would have to be a recognition on the behalf of Republicans that this is the law of the land. And it’s still so divisive within their party that I don’t think that, even if leadership wanted to try and improve the system, they have the votes to move anything along those lines.
MS. IFILL: Well, we did get more than a few questions about actual policy debate, like health care, but we also got these two about the environment.
JOHN (Kansas City): (From videotape.) - how they could work together better on the environment. You know, it’s really important to keep our planet, you know, safe. And I just feel like they’re not working together, not understanding that it’s kind of a ticking time bomb.
DAVID (Minneapolis): (From videotape.) I would like to know if your panelists think that President Obama’s recent announcement on climate change in China is the start of a tipping point and Americans finally addressing this issue seriously.
MS. IFILL: Ticking time bombs – our favorite kind, Peter. Also this week we saw that the administration is moving on ozone rules. They’re doing a lot of kind of poke-in-your-eye issues to force the issue.
MR. BAKER: Well, they’re doing what they can with the executive power that they have. And the president last summer kicked off a process that will, by the end of his administration, significantly limit power plants and their carbon emissions under the Clean Air Act. This is power that has been given to him by Congress and sanctioned by the Supreme Court. And yet it is, in fact, provocative to the Republicans, who don’t support these measures.
His agreement in China was interesting, because it’s the first time we got China, which is the second-biggest polluter – and actually, I think, rising to the biggest polluter in the world –
MS. IFILL: Second after us.
MR. BAKER: - after us – to agree to, you know, limits. They’re not agreeing to as much as some environmentalists would like them to, but it’s the first time. The problem is it’s a nonbinding agreement. This isn’t going to the Senate for a vote for a treaty. This is the president of the United States saying this is what I’m saying we’re going to do. But he’s going to be out of office in two years.
MS. IFILL: You know, it seems to get to the issue of bipartisanship. And one of the other bipartisan issues which have been coming up is about taxes. And the president signaled this week that he’s willing to veto a lovely agreement that had been worked out about raising – about giving corporate tax relief, but not middle-class tax relief.
MS. DAVIS: That’s true. And it was a really interesting decision by the White House, because they announced they were going to veto a bill that we haven’t even seen yet. I mean, there’s the contours of an agreement on Capitol Hill, but they – where you don’t have actual bill text. And the White House got out front and said, what we’re hearing, (we would meet ?) the president’s veto.
So I do think that part of this is that this longer-term recognition that Democrats have coming out of this election that they had a bad message on the economy, that they need to have a stronger message on the middle class, and they’re looking for opportunities to drive that message home. And this tax bill is – and we’ve heard it from Nancy Pelosi on the tax-extender bill as well, that they see this as sort of a way to spark that argument about how Democrats are the party of the middle class, even though this bill involves far more tax provisions than just what affects American families.
MS. IFILL: There are so many things that the administration has undertaken just in the last few weeks which unilaterally – whether it’s veto threats that never existed before or climate-change agreements, you name it, which seems to be part of a strategy of, what the hay, we’re going to go for the – we’re going to go for the wall here.
MR. BALZ: Well, immigration is the biggest, what he did on immigration.
MS. IFILL: Right.
MR. BALZ: I think it is a function, Gwen, of the fact that we are six years into a relationship between congressional Republicans and the president, and both sides so distrust the other and feel that there is so little likelihood that they can work on anything large.
They may get some small bipartisan agreements, but on any of the large issues, particularly, I think, at the White House – Peter would know better than I – but I think that there is a belief that they’re going to move the way they want to move. They are not going to worry about what Congress does or says. And it – I have been struck too, as you have, by the aggressiveness of the White House in the face of a very bad beating in the election.
MS. IFILL: There’s going to be so much to watch for. But we have some other stuff we want to talk about - politics, good old-fashioned politics – because one thing we’re going to be spending a lot of time doing in 2015 is tracking the ups and downs of the men and women who want to be president.
One potential candidate who took a beating and kept on ticking this year was New Jersey Governor Chris Christie.
HAROLD (Cincinnati): (From videotape.) Governor Chris Christie has the persona that he asks the tough questions. So how come he didn’t ask the simple question: Who closed down the freeway? And if he can’t ask the simple question, how does he expect to become president in 2016?
MS. IFILL: Pierre, you spent some time covering the “Bridgegate.” And I’m curious about whether that is now over. He has just overcome that.
MR. THOMAS: The Justice Department investigation continues; to be determined what they’re going to do. And when that shoe drops, good or bad for the governor, it is going to be a huge story. And it’s something that – a cloud that’s still hanging over him, because, you know, when a federal investigation is under way and you have the FBI involved, you just don’t know how it’s going to turn out, because they have immense powers to put people under intense pressure.
And the thing that would be troubling if I were the governor is you’re not hearing a lot about where the case is right now.
MS. IFILL: But politically, he certainly seems to be carrying himself like a man who’s past it.
MR. BALZ: He’s certainly acting that way. I mean, if the shoe drops, it will drop, as Pierre says, in a big way, particularly if there’s any implication that he was involved. But he is operating as if he is confident that that’s not going to be the case. He had a very good fall. The Republican governors scored some big victories, and they also held on to some races that they were worried about. He was tireless this fall in not only raising money for the Republican Governors Association; he was the chair. They raised more than $100 million under his tenure.
MS. IFILL: They had a lot to show for it.
MR. BALZ: And they had a lot to show for it. And he was in places – for example, in Maryland, which was a big surprise when Larry Hogan won that race, he was in there three times in the last 10 days, twice in the last five days.
I mean, it showed a level of commitment that I think, when I was down at the Republican Governors Association earlier this month and watched those governors praise Governor Christie for the work he had done and thank Governor Christie for not only the investment that the RGA had made, but also the commitment he had made, he certainly earned some chits among his fellow governors.
MS. IFILL: Peter, I’m curious. Is there any evidence that the White House cares about 2016? And if they do, are they watching Republicans more closely or the Democrats?
MR. BAKER: (Laughs.) Well, they do care, obviously, because, if nothing else, you know, President Obama understands that if he leaves office and hands it over to Chris Christie or another Republican, his health care program, his immigration executive order, a lot of these things then suddenly might be back on the table.
More immediately, he has two other impacts. One is, you know, he’s got to find some people to fill some jobs. He’s looking for a new defense secretary. And one of the candidates who took herself out this week, Michele Flournoy, was largely thought to be waiting for Hillary Clinton, to be her defense secretary. Does that mean he’s having a hard time getting Democrats to sign on board for the last two years of an ending administration rather than wait for the next one?
And then, secondly, does he have enough time? How much time does he have to make any deals before 2016 sucks all the oxygen out of the room?
MS. IFILL: OK. Well, we’re going to conclude with a couple of questions that seem to sum up the frustration so many viewers say they’re feeling right now.
Here’s one: “Can the two parties in the 2015 edition of the House and Senate play nice in the sandbox, or are we in for two more years of finger-pointing, gridlock, and lawmaking inaction?”
And here’s another: “Why does it seem that we’re going backwards instead of forward?”
Now, you’re in the place where you see things go backward and sometimes forward, Sue.
MS. DAVIS: Yes.
MS. IFILL: What’s the answer to that one?
MS. DAVIS: I think it’s a little bit of both. I think that there is certainly an ability for the incoming Republican Congress and President Obama to find some common ground. There’s some strange issues where there’s overlap between the two circles of ideology.
We talked about taxes. On the corporate side of the tax code, we could see some developments there.
The president would like a trade bill in Asia. I think part of his foreign policy legacy is he’s tried to make inroads and change Asia policy. I think there’s some – he has some allies on that front.
On the big questions - on the health care law, on immigration, on the 30,000-foot problems – I think it’s going to still be a very contentious two years. But, you know, putting points on the board, incremental progress, is generally how Congress tends to work anyway. And I think that that, in a lot of ways, is forward-looking progress.
MS. IFILL: Final thoughts, guys?
MR. BALZ: I agree on that. I think that there is some opportunity for some smaller things. But I think on the big things, the country is still so divided. And I think Washington reflects that.
MR. THOMAS: You know, when I talk to friends outside the Beltway, they just think of frustration, and they see no end in sight. And I can’t sit here and say that I expect anything significant coming up.
MS. IFILL: OK, Peter, we’re looking for a little optimism here. (Laughter.)
MR. THOMAS: Well, I think there is a possibility. Look at the last several two-term presidents. Their last two years were all thought to be lame-duck periods – Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush. Each of them actually managed to do some things that hadn’t been expected at this particular point.
MS. IFILL: Mmm hmm.
MR. BAKER: When we sat around the table probably in those administrations, we probably would have said, oh, these two last two years look pretty grim for the president, and each of them got some things done. So there’s still hope, I think, for the next two years.
MS. IFILL: Are they reading the same history books you’re reading in the West Wing?
MR. BAKER: (Laughs.) They’re seizing on every little glimmer of optimism they can. They feel liberated by the end of the midterms. They don’t have to kowtow to the Democrats in Congress anymore, and they can go ahead and go forward with some of their priorities on their own.
MS. IFILL: OK. Well, we’ll be watching for all of that. Unfortunately, we have to leave you a little bit tonight just early for pledge week, so you can support the stations who support us.
But before we go, we want to send our condolences to the family of Marion Barry, former mayor of Washington, D.C. He will be remembered for his leadership in the civil rights movement and for his controversial political career, and as a mayor who defined a city and an era. Marion Barry was 78 years old.
Now we turn it back over to you. Eat leftovers. Shop, by all means. But debate it all among yourselves, even if you don’t agree, especially if you don’t agree. That is the price of citizenship. And remember to be thankful.
See you next week on “Washington Week.” Good night.