Week In Politics: Ukraine And Donald Sterling

Regular political commentators, E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and David Brooks of The New York Times, discuss the Ukraine crisis and Donald Sterling's comments on race.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And with that, we turn to our regular Friday commentators: E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post and the Brookings Institution. Hey there, E.J.

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

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

DAVID BROOKS: How are you?

CORNISH: So, I want to follow up on Scott's report there from the White House. He's describing sanctions as an economic acupuncture - that's a new one for me. But can we talk a little bit about the image of the German chancellor standing alongside President Obama? What did you guys see, in terms of them presenting a united front?

BROOKS: Well, it's - I don't know, acupuncture. It's certainly pinprick. You know, we've been promising overwhelming sanctions now since the very beginning of this crisis. And the word the White House has been using has been calibrated. I think the word most observers have been using - have been small and ineffectual. And I'm unsure the Obama administration is to blame for that. Most people think the Europeans are the ones dragging their heels. But the blunt fact is that what's happening in Ukraine seems to escalate day by day, and our response has been ineffectual.

CORNISH: And we should mention, elsewhere in the program, we have a report about the Ukrainian city of Odessa, where 31 people have died after clashes there between pro-Russia demonstrators and supporters of the government in Kiev. But E.J., you know, we heard Russia this week saying that that accord hammered out in Geneva had been destroyed.

DIONNE: Well, you know, I heard a European diplomat today say something very interesting, which is things have gone so far in eastern Ukraine that it's not even clear Putin himself has command of this anymore. He may have set something in motion that could get out of even his control. And that's not clear yet he's against anything that's happening right now, but when you look at what happened today, this situation is very dangerous.

I think the good thing that happened at the White House today was, A, Merkel and Obama standing together. That image is a big deal. Secondly, they did threaten tougher sanctions. Now, critics are going to say, well, they're saying if he disrupts the elections - and people will ask, well, aren't the elections disrupted nonetheless. This is a very heavy lift for Europe, and I think that this was the first concrete deadline that we have gotten. And so I think it was a form of progress but I think the West is in a very difficult position. It's not willing to go to war. It shouldn't want to go to war there. And influencing through sanctions is very difficult. But I think they're going to press harder. And Merkel has, on this issue, been a real friend to Obama.

CORNISH: And as a side bar, this is all happening with the backdrop of the conversation about NSA surveillance programs. It seems as though in the end the relationship was not as harmed as people originally thought it might have been.

BROOKS: I think that was pretty clear there were a lot of crocodile tears. Frankly, everybody spies on each other, so I think there was disputes where - people were screaming but nobody was taking it that seriously. To me, we're in this weird situation where we've got a death by a thousand cuts problem, where no individual problem around the world, whether it's Ukraine or Iran or even the Chinese throwing their weight around in the oceans over there is worth a massive overall response. Nonetheless, you take all these things together and they really degrade the world order, the order that we've counted on for the free movement of peoples and goods. And you just sense this degradation of this whole system that we really do rely upon. And I'm not quite sure how we build that system back up. But there's no question the world order is fraying, and along with it the prosperity and the security of lots of small nations as they get threatened by larger regional nations.

DIONNE: I'm not sure we would be looking at it this way if we didn't have the events in Ukraine. And I also thought on the surveillance Merkel tried to be tough today. She said we're not all made up on this. Now, some of that clearly was for a domestic audience in Germany, which was very upset by this news. But I think we do still have a ways to go with the Germans on surveillance.

CORNISH: Speaking of domestic audience, President Obama made sure to note today's jobs report. Employers added 288,000 jobs in April, but the unemployment rate sank in part because of a shrinking labor force. You know, is this a number that Democrats really can be excited about?

DIONNE: They can. Two hundred and eighty-eight thousand is the first really exciting-looking number they've had in a long time, and 6.3 percent is significant. But you're quite right that there was a drop in the participation rate. I think that says we have a ways to go. This is no time for either the Fed or Congress - well Congress has taken its foot off the accelerator a long time ago. It shouldn't apply any brakes, so, we have a ways to go. But this is a much better number than we've had in a long time.

BROOKS: Yeah. I think we're seeing people who are in the labor force, finally there's some jobs for them. But we're developing - I don't know if you call them another class - but huge numbers of people who are just out of the labor market. You know, when you get out for so long, it's just very hard to get back in, even when jobs are being created. So, we could be seeing in this country large numbers of people out of the labor force for decades.

DIONNE: And wages are still stagnant, just to add to that.

BROOKS: Right, right.

CORNISH: The economic recovery, obviously, exciting thing for Democrats. They always want to talk about that going in election season. For Republicans, you could say it is the 2012 Benghazi attack today. House Speaker John Boehner said he's going to set up a full special committee to investigate it, subpoena Secretary of State John Kerry, just in time for May and the kickoff of the primary season.

DIONNE: I couldn't help but note that Hillary Clinton had a 12-point lead on Jeb Bush in the most recent poll. I don't know if that factored in. They're saying it's this e-mail that the White House didn't put out. I don't know how long they can play this Benghazi card. I think the public wants politicians to be talking about the economy. And I think this is just a base issue.

CORNISH: David, something that House Republicans have long called for.

BROOKS: Yeah, this issue I think died about a year ago. You know, it's some bright, shiny object. I'm not sure why the internal momentum. If I were a Republican wanted to pick on the Obama foreign policy, I can think of nine million other issues I'd pick on, the early withdrawal of troops from Iraq and Afghanistan, the way we responded to Ukraine, many other things. So why are they responding to this?

And my analysis would be they want to attack the Obama foreign policy but they don't themselves believe in any affirmative foreign policy, and any use of American power abroad. And so, this is a sort of a way to do that and please Rand Paul followers.

CORNISH: One other quick thing: On the execution in Oklahoma, this has really put a spotlight on problems within death penalty states that they're having with lethal injection. Don't see a real shift in conversation though over capital punishment itself.

DIONNE: We've seen an enormous shift in recent years. Over the last couple of decades, support for the death penalty has dropped from about 80 percent of Americans to 60 percent. So there's already momentum on that side. And in this case, Governor Fallin rushed this execution. The state's high court said no, we're not sure this mix of drugs. Then somebody threatened to impeach the court after it wanted to delay this.

This is not going to be decisive but it's another step that says there's something wrong with the way we're doing the death penalty in this country.

BROOKS: Yeah, I'm one of the 20 percent who've switched sides on this. I used the pro and now I'm against. Not for these issues, but mostly because I just don't think we can be confident of our convictions in these case.

CORNISH: David Brooks of the New York Times, E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post and Brookings Institution, have a good weekend.

DIONNE: You do, too.

BROOKS: You, too.

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