Special: Obama-Putin at the United Nations and the fickle GOP electorate

Sep. 25, 2015 AT 10:57 p.m. EDT

Amid tensions over Syria and Ukraine, President Obama and Russian leader Vladimir Putin will meet in New York during the United Nations General Assembly on September 28. The two leaders are at odds over what the U.S. calls Russian aggression in Syria and Ukraine. Alexis Simendinger of RealClearPolitics explains the challenges the two sides face trying to find common ground on their profound differences. The Washington Post's Dan Balz explains how a fickle GOP electorate may have lead to Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's surprise early exit from the 2016 presidential campaign.

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Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

ANNOUNCER: This is the Washington Week Webcast Extra .

MS. IFILL: Hello, I’m Gwen Ifill. I’m joined around the table by Dan Balz of The Washington Post , Tom Gjelten of NPR, John Harwood of CNBC, and Alexis Simendinger of RealClearPolitics.

The president is not done meeting with heads of state. Next week, leaders from around the world gather in New York for the annual meeting of the U.N. General Assembly. On the sidelines, President Obama will meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin, and they have a lot to talk about, Alexis. What’s first up?

MS. SIMENDINGER: Well, you know, interesting. They weren’t supposed to meet, but then the White House got apparently a call from the Russians and said that Vladimir Putin would like to –

MS. IFILL: Well, they have been dancing around each other.

MS. SIMENDINGER: Yes, they’ve been dancing around it. But now they tell different stories, right? The White House said that, you know, perhaps the president of Russia is so desperate because the sanctions are so tight that he felt the need to want to meet with the president. The Russians say, no, this was by, you know, mutual agreement.

Anyway, they also don’t agree on exactly the order in which – the emphasis of what they’re going to be talking about. The president is saying, you know, we really need to talk about what’s going on in Ukraine. Russia says really what we’re going to be talking about is Syria. And so they’re going to be going back and forth with each other about, you know, what Russia is doing in Ukraine, which is –

MR. HARWOOD: Are we sure that wasn’t a misdial, and Putin was trying to call Elton John?

MS. SIMENDINGER: I know, really. Exactly. (Laughter.) You know, you ask yourself about it.

But they’re – the White House is already saying they’re not going to come to any agreement on anything, but the White House is very eager to find out from the Russian president what exactly it is that he’s trying to do to back up the Assad regime in Syria. You know, we know that the Russians have put down, you know, planes, tanks, you know, fighter –

MS. IFILL: Which raises a real possibility of a U.S.-Russian –

MS. SIMENDINGER: Which raises, right. Conflagration?

MS. IFILL: Yeah.

MS. SIMENDINGER: The White House is saying they’re hoping that this means that Russia wants to help with the battle against ISIS in a constructive way, but it’s unclear. And then president wants to, again, press the point to Vladimir Putin – who seems not particularly interested in hearing this part of it – you know, that what they’re doing in Ukraine they must stop doing, so.

MS. IFILL: Well, Tom, let’s circle back to the pope. There’s a lot left over to talk about, but one of the things that struck me that was interesting was that he kept circling – (coughs) – pardon me – circling back to certain people, Americans who were – Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King. I didn’t hear him going out of his way to raise the profile of people from conservative backgrounds, or – what was his point? And why these people?

MR. GJELTEN: You know, Dorothy Day is a little bit unique in that regard. She was clearly – she’s somebody that actually bridges the Catholic Left and the Catholic Right in a way, and he loves people who are bridgers.

MS. IFILL: In what way?

MR. GJELTEN: She was, on the one hand, from the – from the left-wing’s point of view, she was a big advocate for workers. She formed this magazine, Catholic Worker . Big supporter of the labor movement. But she became very devout in terms of her faith, particularly in later years. She went to mass every day. She was very pro-life. She had actually had an abortion early on, but in – you know, after that she became very pro-life. So for devout Catholics who take the sacraments really seriously, who take abortion really seriously, she’s actually a heroine to them as well. So she sort of brings these two wings together.

MS. IFILL: And Thomas Merton?

MR. GJELTEN: Thomas Merton – Thomas Merton is more of a – I remember Thomas Merton from the 1960s because he was the Catholic who sort of like almost became a Buddhist, and he was very much a part of that whole sort of Eastern religion thing in the ’60s, and became very active in the anti-war movement and anti-nuclear weapons movement. So he is a little bit harder to sort of justify from a conservative point of view.

MS. IFILL: But if you’re –

MR. GJELTEN: But he was a mystic. He was a – he was a very spiritual guy.

MS. IFILL: If you’re the man – if you’re a man of peace, which the pope is, there’s a – there’s a through line here with the people he chose to cite.

MR. GJELTEN: And he called Thomas Merton a man of prayer, which the pope is as well.

MS. IFILL: Yeah, as well. OK, I want to –

MR. BALZ: And contemplation.

MR. GJELTEN: Yes.

MS. IFILL: Exactly.

Dan, I want to talk to you a little bit about the outsider theory, the idea that outsiders still exist and that they’re the ones who are the most popular. But – you wrote about this this week – is it that the electorate is fickle, or is it that the candidates are fickle? Which is it? (Chuckles.)

MR. BALZ: Well, I wrote about it in the context of Scott Walker. And if you think about the history of Scott Walker as a politician over the last five or six years, here is a – here is a candidate for president who was a hero to the tea party movement –

MS. IFILL: That’s true.

MR. BALZ: – who did exactly what the grassroots, angry part of the party wanted. He initiated serious reforms in Wisconsin. He took on labor, organized labor, the public employee unions. He beat them. They came after him again. He beat them in a recall election. And then he won reelection. And so if you – if you think of what that part of the party was looking for, for all his flaws as a candidate, you would say Scott Walker fits that profile. And yet, the minute Donald Trump came on the scene, it’s like they all rushed away from Scott Walker –

MR. GJELTEN: Scott Walker wasn’t angry enough.

MR. BALZ: He wasn’t angry enough, no. He’s never been angry enough in that way. So it’s a question of kind of style versus substance, of record versus rhetoric.

MS. IFILL: I also think that sometimes, when people fall out of a race for whatever reason, whether it’s money or whether they just couldn’t keep their facts straight or there’s a louder, more bombastic person in the race, in the end maybe you just weren’t cut out to do this for the long term.

MR. BALZ: Well, that’s true. And you know, in the same way that four years ago and more recently Rick Perry – I mean, when Rick Perry got in the race four years ago, everybody said he’s right out of central casting and he fits the party of 2011-2012. He was not a good candidate. And so a lot of the problems that Scott Walker has are ones he visited on himself. But I think there is a larger point, which you raise, and that is it’s not clear what that kind of frustrated, angry grassroots of the party is really looking for. And are they now in the stage of simply kind of window shopping? I haven’t talked to a Republican voter this year who has narrowed the field to even two candidates. I mean, they’re still looking at three or four.

MS. IFILL: Kind of like – kind of like dating: you know what you don’t want, but you don’t know exactly what you do want all the time. (Laughs.)

MR. BALZ: And there will be a point, as we get closer to the start of the season, that they’ll have to look in a different way. But right now the allure is of the Donald Trumps or the Ben Carsons or Carly Fiorinas on the rise. The outsiders, this is their moment.

MS. IFILL: Yeah.

John, you wrote this week – and I wrote this down – about the competitive psychology of presidential elections. Who are you talking about?

MR. HARWOOD: Well, I was talking about Bernie Sanders, and was talking about the fact that when Hillary Clinton and Bill Clinton began their careers in presidential politics, Democrats were beset with anxiety about their prospects for winning the presidency. The whole notion of Democratic presidential strategy was figuring out ways to get back voters who had defected, get back Reagan Democrats, try to build the party so they could compete with Republicans, who won five out of six races between 1968 and 1988. We’re in a much different world right now because Democrats believe that they’re the majority party in presidential politics, that their task is to mobilize a base of supporters that they already have.

And feeling that the wind is at their back gives Democratic primary voters a little more freedom at this stage to entertain someone like Bernie Sanders and to try to say, well, maybe firing up young people with an unvarnished Occupy Wall Street kind of message – go after the billionaire class – maybe that’s something we can entertain. Hillary Clinton will try to change that focus when we get to January and February, and revive the risk that Republicans could win the White House. But right now, that’s giving Bernie Sanders some running room.

MS. IFILL: OK. Well, thank you all very much. We squeezed a little bit more in there.

Thank you, too. Stay online and let us know what you’re thinking about this campaign. Upload your videos and share your opinions at 16 for 2016. That’s at PBS.org/WashingtonWeek. See you next time on the Washington Week Webcast Extra .

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