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Politics & Government

Week In Politics: Syria And The Colorado Recall


And for more analysis on Syria and some of the week's domestic politics, we turn to our weekly commentators, E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and Brookings Institution. Hey there, E.J.

E.J. DIONNE: Good to be with you.

CORNISH: And David Brooks of the New York Times. Hi, David.

DAVID BROOKS: How are you?

CORNISH: So a little bit more about Secretary of State John Kerry. I mean, this week started with, I guess I'll call it an utterance from him that rapidly evolved into an alternative political option for Syria. And, you know, we had one former U.S. ambassador say to us this week that Kerry had turned this from a diplomatic fiasco to potential triumph. I want to get your take. I'll start with you, E.J.

Where do you see this? We don't mean legacy, but just this week, what happened?

DIONNE: Well, I think it could end up just as that ambassador said. I mean, we have to see how this plays out. Either he backed into a negotiating maze that has no exit, in which case everybody will say this was a terrible gaffe, or he will look like one shrewd secretary of state. The administration is arguing that this idea of negotiating all of Assad's chemical weapons away from him originated in conversations between President Obama and President Putin.

And I think there is a shot. I mean, the most optimistic person version here is this leads to further negotiations about pushing Assad out of power eventually. But I got to say one thing about John Kerry's legacy, I hope all political leaders are always haunted by those words that he spoke as a young man. How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?

That is a standard that I think Kerry holds himself to.


BROOKS: Yeah, on Wednesday I was a little hopeful that everyone was going to seize on this diplomatic thing just to get this all behind us, both in Syria, Russia and here. Today it's looking like no exit to me. We're looking at what looks to me like a diplomatic process that is falling apart. In the first place, Assad is beginning to make demands that we reward him for using chemical weapons. We're clearly not going to do that, so he's going to be angry.

We're arguing with the Russians over who should be at this table. They want the Iranians at the table in the diplomatic solution. That's clearly going to be unacceptable to us. The Syrian opposition doesn't want to be there at all. And so, it's beginning to look like something that will be jaw, jaw forever. And our problem is we really do not have much military threat anymore. That's pretty much off the table because I think Congress is not going to be approving anything.

So we're trying to have some leverage for negotiation where we have no threat of force behind it and where the other parties just want to stall. I fear that's where we're going.

CORNISH: Well, let me jump in here because I want to know if also you saw any more of a clear vision of what President Obama's foreign policy is for this region, either from this week's speech or from his comments today. Let me just play those now.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: It is absolutely important for the international community to respond in not only deterring repeated use of chemical weapons, but hopefully getting those chemical weapons outside of Syria.


BROOKS: Yeah. I thought it was a very good speech, very logical, very forceful. I thought it was a pretty compelling speech. To me, the big worry is not so much within Syria, but this turns contagious and we're seeing an upsurge in violence in Iraq. We can see some in Turkey. It turns into one big giant Sunni/Shia war. And so, to me, our main regional strategy should be controlling that and I think the administration has some plans and some thoughts about that not fully laid out.

CORNISH: And E.J. - go ahead, David.

BROOKS: I'm sorry, go ahead. Just one final point. I think one of the things I'm looking for John Kerry to do is anger Barack Obama. This has been a very centralized foreign policy process. Kerry now has the opportunity to establish a little independence.

DIONNE: Yeah, and I think he's already shown a little independence. Indeed, he may have gotten out ahead of President Obama at the beginning of this crisis, but I think, again, when you look at what is the process that has begun, yes there are some signs, including Vladimir Putin's New York Times op-ed piece, which was a real in-your-face piece, I though, against President Obama.

CORNISH: Yeah, a little competition for you there, David, here, in the op-ed pages.

DIONNE: Yes, I agreed with...

BROOKS: His fees are higher.

DIONNE: I agreed with Nick Kristof's piece, not Vladimir Putin. And so, yeah, there is some rockiness here, but you have begun a process that at least has a shot of getting us down the road to where Obama has wanted this all along, which is a negotiated settlement in Syria. So how - you know, if Kerry can pull something like that out of a hat or push these negotiations in that direction, then he will take a very complicated situation and turn it into something.

CORNISH: Now, with all of this news this week, there was - all of this foreign policy news, there was a bit of domestic news that kind of flew under the radar. In Colorado, two states senators, Democrats and big supporters of some new gun control legislation, were ousted in a recall vote.

And we talked so much at the start of the year about the gun control effort around the country. And I'll start with you, David. Is this a sign that that campaign is not just losing steam, fizzling out?

BROOKS: I think so, certainly in battleground states. These were Democrats, one of them in a Democratic district, one in a swing district. Their side of the argument about why they should be recalled vastly outspent the other side, and still they got trounced pretty bad. And so I think it's a signal that first of all, gun control, especially in battleground districts, especially out West, remains extremely unpopular.

I think also a sign Mayor Bloomberg has just made a mistake. If you're the New York mayor, you know, I'm from New York, I love New York, but people don't want the New York mayor interfering in their districts...

CORNISH: And you're referring to sort of how much money he poured into backing gun control supporters in that state...

BROOKS: And just attaching gun control so much to himself, yes.

CORNISH: And E.J., for you, I mean, what are the takeaway lessons here maybe even for the other administration policy goals?

DIONNE: Well, I think that clearly, people like me who support saner gun laws, this is a defeat. But it's also worth noting that the gun lobby picked these two as the most promising districts in the state, number one. Number two, the state supreme court didn't allow mail-in ballots, which - and in Colorado in normal elections, 70 percent of the people cast their ballots by mail. This hurt the incumbents.

Having said that, the pro-gun people still have - there's an intensity gap on their side. And I think people who want to change laws, who want background checks and smaller magazines, really have to organize an enthusiastic base ready to get out and vote on these things. The other...

CORNISH: But E.J., it feels like we've been hearing that same statement, right, for many, many months about this enthusiasm gap.

DIONNE: Right, and I think that what you saw for the first time after Newtown was the beginning of what has to be a long-term effort. The NRA's been at this for 30 years. I think that you're seeing a new organization going in. It's going to have to go for a while.

The other point I wanted to make is there is a lot of discontent in the country. You had it expressed it on the right in Colorado. In New York, and Mayor Bloomberg was also the recipient of this, Bill de Blasio, a defiant progressive talking about inequality, seems - is very close to avoiding a runoff in a Democratic primary.

Now, yes, it's a Democratic primary, but I think it shows that the equality issue, inequality issue, is very much alive.

CORNISH: And David last word to you just because this went to New York.


CORNISH: Is there a lesson here on this referendum on Bloomberg, as you hinted at?

BROOKS: Well, people want to change, and I do agree that as the Republican Party moves right, I do think there's a sign of liberal populism that is moving the Democratic Party left. And who knows, Mayor Bloomberg may get the last laugh in all this if the center hollows out and he seizes that spot.

CORNISH: Well, David Brooks and E.J. Dionne, thank you both for speaking with us.

DIONNE: Good to be with you.

BROOKS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.