Week In Politics: Violence In Gaza And Paul Ryan's Anti-Poverty Plan

Regular political commentators, E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and David Brooks of The New York Times, discuss U.S. policy options in the Gaza Strip and Rep. Paul Ryan's anti-poverty plan.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And joining us now are our Friday regulars, columnists E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post and the Brookings Institution and David Brooks of the New York Times. Good to see you both.

E.J. DIONNE: Good to see you.

DAVID BROOKS: Good to be with you.

SIEGEL: And let's begin with another huge foreign policy challenge facing the U.S. - the fighting in Gaza between Hamas and Israel. Secretary of State John Kerry says he's made some progress towards stopping the fighting, the two sides have agreed to a 12-hour humanitarian pause tomorrow, but so far there is no ceasefire agreement and the fighting has claimed more than 800 lives. What does Washington do next? David Brooks, you go first.

BROOKS: Well, it's important to remember this is not a normal Middle East negotiation. This is not about occupation, there are no settlements in Gaza. Hamas doesn't believe that Israel has a right to exist. So this is not part of the normal peace process. I think this is part of the Muslim Brotherhood process. There are certain parties in the region, notably Egypt and Saudi Arabia and Israel, who really are worried about the spread of the Muslim Brotherhood and their allies like Hamas, other parties like Turkey and Qatar are more friendly to it. And we're seeing this rivalry play out in the Gaza-Israeli war. Israel's taking the opportunity to sort of weaken Hamas with the tacit backing of some of these other pseudo-allies and Hamas is taking the advantage to put themselves and the Muslim Brotherhood at the center of Arab politics, where they haven't been since the last coup in Egypt and really to force Egypt to play ball with them. So we're seeing a large geographic game play out in this small area.

SIEGEL: But does that translate to let the Israelis continue to deal more of a blow to Hamas in Gaza?

BROOKS: It's a delicate dance both of them are doing. Israel wants to weaken Hamas. On the other hand, they're clearly being hit - hurt diplomatically by all the deaths. Hamas wants to be at the center of the game, on the other hand, they are being weakened militarily. I don't think we're going to be able to force their logic. At one point, one party will decide on losing this thing, but that's not right now.

SIEGEL: E.J., what do you think the U.S. should do now?

DIONNE: I think the U.S. is trying to do the right thing by first arranging a humanitarian cease-fire and then hoping that there is going to be a negotiation with some of the underlying issues. I think the problem for Israel here is while they may well be weakening Hamas militarily, they're probably strengthening Hamas politically. I mean, one of the reasons Hamas wanted this fight I think is because there was some polling done in Gaza which showed them in an incredibly weak position. And I think that when they are seen - even though people in Gaza do not want this fighting to be going on - when they are seen up against the Israelis like this, they can strengthen their hand politically on the ground. The administration's view - I was talking to some people there today, as - you know - this is what happens when you don't have some kind of peace process in place, let alone an agreement. But some - in the months when we were negotiating, when we were trying to see if we could get toward a comprehensive settlement, you didn't have a vacuum fueled by violence of this sort.

SIEGEL: Were people at the White House at all hopeful that the peace process would resume after what we're seeing now in Gaza?

DIONNE: My sense is they had no false hope. They would like the peace process to resume, you know, the question is why doesn't the U.S. now lay down a comprehensive proposal for peace? And their view was, you know, you've got one big shot to do that. It's not clear this is the best time to do that. So they're sticking with efforts to arrange a cease-fire.

BROOKS: To reiterate, I just don't think the peace process is relevant here. Hamas is not interested in a peace process. They're not interested in a two-state solution. This is about a larger, more fundamental opposition.

SIEGEL: Well, we're going to turn to a domestic issue now. House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan, who was of course Mitt Romney's running mate in 2012, proposed this week an overhaul of federal social welfare programs. He says it would consolidate up to 11 federal programs into one stream of funding to participating states, and then the states would have flexibility in how to provide the aid. Ryan said this - he drew this contrast between the federal government on the one hand and state and local government on the other.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

REPRESENTATIVE PAUL RYAN: The federal government is the rearguard. It protects the supply lines. It's the people on the ground who are the vanguard. They fight poverty on the frontlines. They have to lead in this effort and Washington should follow their lead.

SIEGEL: What do you think? Does Paul Ryan - David Brooks, does he have an approach to poverty that's actually going to galvanize or inspire conservatives?

BROOKS: I think it's the best Republican approach we've seen in a long time. And this - it's sort of an interesting question - not an open question - or it is an open question, whether - who's better at this, the federal or state government? State governments have not always been great, but the state governments do have the advantage - is they can experiment a lot more and they're also a lot less polarized than Washington. So the idea of at least devolving some power to the states makes a certain amount of sense to me, I have to say.

SIEGEL: E.J.?

DIONNE: You know, I listened to this proposal and Ryan dressed it up nicely and let's give him credit, he did endorse extending the earned income tax credit to - increasing the earned income tax credit for people without kids, call for sentencing reform, that was all very nice. But what really struck me about this proposal is that it was a very, very, very old proposal. Republicans have been talking about block granting to the states forever. And the thing that I think is most troubling is that he takes food stamps, which are the single best program we have both to respond to immediate need - they kick in right away if people need it - and the best economic stimulus we have because the money goes out right away when we need it, when purchasing power declines. He wants to roll that into his block grant along with housing vouchers and childcare vouchers. This just didn't strike me as new at all. But the music sounded new because all we've been hearing about up to now are budget cuts.

SIEGEL: David, is this of a piece with, say, anger over the Common Core educational standards? Are we seeing, you know, give the government back to the people at the local level as a rallying cry?

BROOKS: Well, I mean, that is - our system was sort of based on that. And I think we are seeing a bit of Libertarian populism that we don't know how to do things from Washington. We should devolve power to the states. My basic view is that we don't know what causes poverty. It's so complicated and the only thing we can do is really flood the zone in - with everything we can think of, like the Harlem Children's Zone, to try to get some positive spiral - so that'll help cure the economic problems and also the cultural problems.

DIONNE: We can try a lot of things but we cannot expect anything good to come of cutting or block granting some of the core programs that at least hold people up, like food stamps, when they fall onto hard times. If we can have some acceptance that we're going to continue those programs and then let's experiment in other areas, then we might be able to talk some across party lines. But don't endanger food stamps.

BROOKS: Well, the good thing about this budget is that he doesn't cut, it's revenue neutral, but it does allow experimentation.

SIEGEL: David Brooks and E.J. Dionne, thanks to both of you.

DIONNE: Thank you.

BROOKS: Good to be with you.

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