The McLaughlin Group

Host: John McLaughlin

Pat Buchanan, Author and Columnist;
Eleanor Clift, The Daily Beast;
Susan Ferrechio, Washington Examiner;
Mort Zuckerman, U.S. News & World Report

Taped: Friday, March 21, 2014
Broadcast: Weekend of March 22-23, 2014

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JOHN MCLAUGHLIN: Issue One: Populists Aux Armes.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: (From videotape.) What I believe unites the people of this nation, regardless of race or region or party, young or old, rich or poor, is the simple, profound belief in opportunity for all.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Opportunity for all, the theme of President Obama's State of the Union address in January, two months ago. The president's, quote-unquote, "opportunity agenda" includes hiking the minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10 an hour, ensuring equal pay for women, and instituting universal preschool.

White House analysts, however, noted that the president backed away from an earlier theme of his -- economic inequality; inequality being a term Mr. Obama uttered 26 times in one speech, one month prior to the State of the Union.

Why did Mr. Obama drop the theme of inequality? Former Obama speechwriter Jon Favreau tells us, quote, "any time a Democrat mentions inequality, suddenly they're a raging populist," unquote.

Well, is being a populist such a bad thing these days? Many raging populists are taking heart. Michael Tomasky, in the New York Review of Books, writes that there is an optimism among liberals that the Democratic Party, quote, "after years of, in the argot, moving to the right, is finally soft-shoeing its way leftward, away from economic centrism and towards a populism that the party as a whole has not embraced for years, or even decades," unquote.

One person in particular to thank for this populist revival: Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, the former professor at Harvard Law School. After Congress approved the Troubled Asset Relief Program, TARP, Warren was selected by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to supervise how the $700 billion bank bailout was to be administered. TARP did most to get the country out of the 2008 financial crisis.

Warren also helped design the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which helps consumers steer clear of risky loans. Buoyed by this achievement in 2011, Warren decided to run against incumbent Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown. She defeated Brown, winning his seat in 2012.

During that campaign, she stoked liberals with impassioned speeches. One Warren video in particular went viral; i.e., all over the Internet. Its quality may be shaky, but Warren's words ring with the truth, some say. Don't pass out.

SENATOR ELIZABETH WARREN (D-MA): (From videotape.) There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own -- nobody. You built a factory out there. Good for you. But I want to be clear. You moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate. You are safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. You built a factory and it turned into something terrific or a great idea. God bless. Keep a big hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Question: Is populism the new zeitgeist? And should centrist Hillary Clinton be worried? Pat Buchanan.

PAT BUCHANAN: I don't think she should be worried, but there's no doubt that populist rhetoric has a great appeal. Obama paraphrased that when he said if you've got a business, you didn't build it; someone else did. And that backfired on him.

But the reason it's not going anywhere is not simply Hillary Clinton, who is something of a center-left candidate, John. Three reasons. One of those reasons is basically "Obamacare," which is the great liberal enterprise of big government, has turned into a total debacle. And it's basically discredited the idea of liberalism.

Secondly, if you look at the entire western world, all of them have reached the limits of the massive welfare state, how much you can tax and how much you can spend, and it's affecting growth. So those are two of the reasons for this -- for the fact that it's not going anywhere, John.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Eleanor, do you think Hillary Clinton is more properly described as a centrist?

ELEANOR CLIFT: Well, first of all, the energy in the Democratic Party right now is on the left, and it's around populism. I think Hillary Clinton is fairly portrayed as a centrist. But if you define populism as being for universal preschool education, raising the minimum wage, equal pay for women, she's there. She's been at the barricades for decades. So she's not going to have any difficulty crafting a vision that will appeal to Democrats. So I think this notion that there's this big divide in the party is simply false.

And just to correct what you said, President Obama didn't say that business, you didn't build it. He said exactly what she said, that the roads that took you to your business, the schools that your kids attend, the libraries that are there -- I mean, everything is part of a collective effort. And we do live in a society where we should be looking out for each other. It's not a crass capitalistic individualism. And so I think, you know, Hillary Clinton can easily navigate this future.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: There are 10 Democrats on Capitol Hill who are in tight races. Do you know how that's going to turn out? And they're the biggest liberals on Capitol Hill.

SUSAN FERRECHIO: Well, they're in swing districts in the Senate, and not all of them are considered really liberal. But those are swing districts.

I think what's interesting about Elizabeth Warren -- and I agree that there's an atmosphere where populism could be -- could work in the next election. But it's created by, you know, the policies that have been put forward by the current president. That's the irony.

I mean, people are really feeling down and out. They're not making livable wages. They're getting only part-time employment. They're really suffering economically. There's a feeling that they're just -- you know, they're not -- their needs are not being met. And that's kind of what populism is about.

So in that sense I agree there's an atmosphere where Elizabeth Warren could really thrive. However, she is only a second-tier candidate. All this depends on whether Hillary Clinton decides to run. And if Hillary Clinton decides to run, I have a hard time seeing her running a la Elizabeth Warren. I think she's going to be more of a centrist candidate. And I don't -- but I do think the populist theme is going to be part of the Democratic primary for certain.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Notwithstanding part of what she just said, if populism is the new zeitgeist, how do you explain President Obama's anemic job approval ratings?

MORT ZUCKERMAN: Well, I think what was implicit in what was just being said is that we have a very weak economy. We have huge numbers of people who are unemployed. We have huge -- even 28 million, 27 million people who are working part-time who want to work full-time. There's clearly a great struggle for so many families to make ends meet.
So one of the easy ways to do it politically is basically to say, well, there's the 1 percent or whatever it is. I don't think that the reason. The reason is -- and what we can do politically as a government is to do at least two things. One, of course, is to have a fiscal stimulus. But the other is to put a lot more effort and energy into education, because the key to the jobs of the future is going to be in that field of education.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: OK, as it turns out, populism is a hot potato within the Democratic Party.

The Third Way is a centrist Democratic think tank. It champions a, quote-unquote, "moderate-led U.S. politics." In a December op-ed in The Wall Street Journal, Third Way leaders took populists like Elizabeth Warren and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio to task.

Quote: "If you talk to leading progressives these days, you'll be sure to hear this message: The Democratic Party should embrace the economic populism of New York Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren. Nothing would be more disastrous for Democrats." Their economic "movement relies on a potent 'we can have it all' fantasy that goes something like this: If we force the wealthy to pay higher taxes, close a few corporate tax loopholes, and break up some big banks, then -- presto! -- we can pay for, and even expand, existing entitlements. Meanwhile, we can invest more deeply in K-12 education, in infrastructure, in health research, in clean energy and more.

"On the same day that Bill de Blasio won" his mayoral election "in New York City, a referendum to raise taxes on high-income Coloradans to fund public education and universal pre-K failed in a landslide. Before Democrats follow Senator Warren and Mayor-elect de Blasio over the populist cliff, they should consider Colorado as the true 2013 Election Day harbinger of American liberalism," unquote. So say Third Way Democratic centrists.

Question: Does the Third Way eclipse Elizabeth Warren's populism? Eleanor Clift.

MS. CLIFT: Well, this is really, I think, a faux fight within the party. I mean, their main pitch is that what happens in New York City and what happens in Massachusetts typically does not play across the country. So liberals beware of the horse that you ride going into the next election. I think they make a very good point.

Their other good point is that you've got to face entitlements and face that area of trimming the budget if you want to have money left for all the progressive things you want. But I think right now Democrats are done with deficit reduction, sequestration and all of that. Those numbers are coming down. And I think now is the time where Democrats --


MS. CLIFT: -- teeing up for -- excuse me -- teeing up for `14 and `16 are talking about putting money on the table and putting programs out there. This is what --

MR. ZUCKERMAN: Let me --

MS. CLIFT: -- the country wants to do.

MR. BUCHANAN: (Inaudible.)

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Hold on. I just want to say that Elizabeth Warren's short segment there has gone viral on the Net. So that says something, doesn't it?

MR. ZUCKERMAN: It does say something. It doesn't mean that there isn't some appeal for that. But just to use the reference point, de Blasio, who was elected with something like 75 percent of the vote, his support now is down to, like, 39 percent to 38 percent. So he's dropped dramatically. His programs are not taking place effectively with popular support, even in New York City.

MR. BUCHANAN: John, there's another --

MR. ZUCKERMAN: So I wouldn't use that as a reference point.


MR. BUCHANAN: John, there's another inhibiting factor here in the Democratic Party. Like the Republican Party, it is heavily dependent on big money. The big contributors are folks who do not tend to like revolutionary ideas. Now, you take the minimum-wage increase. That's extremely popular. I think it could get through. But, you know, as Mort mentioned, you get to some of de Blasio's ideas, incremental taxes on the well-to-do, it's not going anywhere.

MS. CLIFT: Right.


MS. FERRECHIO: I think this ties in well with what you just said about Obama's poll numbers. I think there's a very simple explanation for this. Populist rhetoric sounds really great on the campaign trail. But when you put it into practice, things don't go well. People don't like it. And I think that's what we see with Obama and with de Blasio.

MS. CLIFT: Well, I think the populist rhetoric -- you're right -- goes great on the campaign trail. It's hard to get it enacted. It's not like they get it enacted and people don't like it.

MS. FERRECHIO: It's not hard, Eleanor. It's impractical. It's fantasyland economics.

MS. CLIFT: Well, I disagree that it's -- educating children is not fantasyland.

MR. BUCHANAN: Well, --

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Is the tea party a variant of populism?

MR. BUCHANAN: John, you've got a good point. It's the precise opposite. You've got populist conservative rhetoric and populist conservatives out there who are doing battle, and the mainstream establishment crowd here. And in the Democratic Party you've got Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders and de Blasio. And then you've got a mainstream party that says we've got to win the election, and we've got all these things. So the two parties are mirror images of one another.

MR. ZUCKERMAN: Right. And Hillary, by the way, is not of the left wing of the party. She tilts towards the center. She's very smart about her politics. She's always been more or less a moderate and somebody who could work with both sides. So I don't think it's fair to put her in the same league either.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Well, this has been a very high-headed seminar here. And now that we've done our duty, don't forget the McLaughlin Group has its website -- its own website. And you can watch this program or earlier programs on the Web at any time from anywhere in the world --

Issue Two: Adrift from the House of Saud.

CLIFFORD MAY (president, Foundation for Defense of Democracies): (From videotape.) The signs are that the Saudis are angry, that they're exasperated, that they're frustrated. And I think if you had to, you know, come down to a one-line reason why, it's because the U.S. is not showing leadership in the Middle East at this moment.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Clifford May, interviewed here by the Voice of America News, is one of a growing number of Middle East experts to warn that the U.S.-Saudi relationship is dangerously adrift.

Late this month, President Obama travels to Riyadh to try to repair our relationship with the house of Saud, the bedrock of America's Middle East policy for decades. Mr. Obama will meet with King Abdullah, the monarch of 30 million people, a nation that stewards the region's largest oil reserves at 267 billion barrels of crude oil proven reserves. Compare that to Canada's 174 billion, Russia's 60 billion, and the U.S.'s 27 billion barrels.

There are three points of friction in the U.S.-Saudi relationship: One, the U.S. nuclear negotiations with Iran were sprung on the Saudis by surprise. Mr. Obama kept the Saudis in the dark during months of U.S. back-channel contacts with Tehran, Saudi Arabia's historic regional rival. Saudi Arabia fears that Iran will get nuclear weapons, threatening its national security.

Two, Mr. Obama's flip-flop on punishing Syria after crossing his red line against chemical weapons use struck Saudi Arabia as a betrayal. The Saudis backed the Syrian opposition and saw U.S. strikes as game changers that would force Bashar al-Assad from power.

Three, Mr. Obama's distancing of long-time U.S. ally, former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, makes King Abdullah dubious about whether the U.S. is a reliable, consistent ally.

In protest of U.S. policies last October, Saudi Arabia rejected a seat on the United Nations Security Council that the U.S. had pushed for it to attain. The Saudis drew the threat from Iran as existential, says Professor Bernard Haykel, specialist in Near Eastern studies at Princeton, as quoted by The New York Times. Quote: "To the Saudis, the Iranian nuclear program and the Syria war are part of a single conflict. One well-placed Saudi told me, quote, 'If we don't do this in Syria, we'll be fighting them next inside the kingdom,'" unquote.

Question: How serious is the U.S.-Saudi rift? Mort.

MR. ZUCKERMAN: It's very serious. They've been one of our key allies in that region for decades and decades. They've helped us in innumerable ways, not all of which have been public issues. They, for example, have financed all the people we want them to finance. They've financed the governments we want them to finance. They have supported us in a million different ways -- in intelligence, right across the board. And they have been a leader in that part of the world.

Now they have lost confidence in this administration. And there's no doubt about that, because this is something that has been obvious for quite a while. They've been quite public about it. That's the amazing thing. They were very unhappy with who emerged in power in Syria, because the ones who did were their enemies. Their allies, like the leaders of Egypt, were abandoned by the United States, in their view. You can't do this to your allies without having a very clear --

MS. CLIFT: I don't --

MR. ZUCKERMAN: -- understanding.

MS. CLIFT: I don't put the Saudis up on that kind of a pedestal. First of all --

MR. ZUCKERMAN: It's not a pedestal. They're our ally.

MS. CLIFT: -- the education that they do in their schools, they teach people to be anti-American. Where did the 9/11 hijackers come from? Our relationship with Saudi Arabia is probably one of the most cynical relationships we've had since World War II. It's based on them being an oil state. Now the value of their oil is diminishing. They're looking around and they're scared to death about all these Arab street uprisings, so they're kind of blaming Obama for deserting them.

He's going over there. He's going to do the photo ops.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Mm-hmm. (Acknowledging.)

MS. CLIFT: We still need them. They still need us. But let's put this relationship --

MR. BUCHANAN: The basic problem --

MS. CLIFT: -- in some perspective.

MR. BUCHANAN: The basic problem is the Saudis see the Iranians as rivals for hegemony in the Gulf. When the United States went in and smashed Saddam Hussein, we destroyed the biggest Sunni military power checking Iran, and it became a Shia state. So now they are outnumbered in the Gulf. They've got all this money. And they see the Americans moving toward a detente with Iran and maybe an entente with Iran; in other words, a change of alliances, which would leave them completely out in the cold.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Where do the United States interests converge with the Saudi interests?

MR. BUCHANAN: I think the -- in a lot of areas, John. I think they've been fairly good on our side in --

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Not on Syria.

MR. BUCHANAN: No, on -- well, the problem in Syria, I'll tell you, is the Gulf Arabs, some of them are supporting the nut balls in Syria, and others are supporting the rebels we support. I think even the Saudis have awakened to the fact that the rebellion against Assad could bring to power some people who will be coming after them.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: How much friction is there over Egypt, the Egypt issue?


MR. ZUCKERMAN: Big-time. Big-time. That was --

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Saudis versus Americans.

MR. ZUCKERMAN: No, the Saudis were horrified by the way we treated the leader of Egypt.

MS. CLIFT: Well --

MR. ZUCKERMAN: I mean --

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: You mean Morsi?

MR. ZUCKERMAN: You may say of course --

MS. CLIFT: Yeah, well --

MR. ZUCKERMAN: -- because they have been -- the Saudis and the Egyptians have been our two strongest allies among the Arab nations, and both of them are the most critical.

MS. CLIFT: You can't hold back the --

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: OK, OK. I haven't forgotten you.

MS. CLIFT: -- (inaudible) -- despots in power.

MS. FERRECHIO: We need them strategically, but we're needing them less and less for oil, which is true. I think that the relationship is changing. And as Eleanor said, both sides still need each other. But I feel like this trip will help settle things a little bit. I don't feel like there's any threat of a huge rift.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: OK, Saudi shopping spree.

Saudi shopping sprees used to involve luxury goods. Now, instead of designer brands, the Saudis are massively defense building, spending billions of dollars in the U.S. to upgrade their frontline army troops. The weapons purchases include everything from Swiss-made Sphinx pistols, the Rolex of small arms, to American attack helicopters, jet aircraft, and advanced rockets.

Also, take note. Saudi officials have said that if Iran builds a nuclear weapon, the Saudis will purchase their own nuclear weapon from Pakistan.

Question: Is the Middle East in an arms race? Pat Buchanan.

MR. BUCHANAN: Well, yeah, it is; the Saudis and others. Look, the whole place is up in chaos, John. All these countries are collapsing; Egypt. Nobody knows what the future's going to bring. And the Saudis want to be able to defend themselves, because, again, they've lost Iran as their huge ally in the Persian Gulf. And across the Gulf is a country --


MR. BUCHANAN: Excuse me -- lost Iraq. Across the Gulf is Iran, which is making nice to the United States and is twice as populous.

MS. CLIFT: Well, this is the aftermath of the disastrous decision --

MR. ZUCKERMAN: And is their serious enemy.

MS. CLIFT: -- to go into -- this is the aftermath of the disastrous decision to go into Iraq. But we can't then maintain Iran -- if there's an opening with Iran, this country should take it, not worry about the Saudis' hurt feelings.

MR. ZUCKERMAN: If there is an opening, and it's an opening that actually accomplishes something instead of gives them, in effect, a slight delay on their road to becoming a nuclear-armed country.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Exit question: On a schism scale from zero to 10 -- you know what a schism is, Pat, right?

MR. BUCHANAN: A schismatic --

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: You can't spell it, though -- zero meaning no schism whatsoever, not even a hairline fissure, and 10 meaning a yawning chasm the width and the breadth of the Grand Canyon, how big is the U.S.-Saudi rift, zero to 10? Pat.

MR. BUCHANAN: It's between a six and a seven, and it's very serious.


MS. CLIFT: I think it's more like a five.


MR. ZUCKERMAN: I'd say it's an eight.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: It's a four.

Issue Three: Senate Showdown.

Two weeks ago, at a closed-door fundraiser in Boston, President Obama warned his fellow Democrats, quote, "In the midterms, Democrats too often don't vote. Too often, when there's not a presidential election, we don't think it's sexy. We don't think it's interesting. People tune out. Because the electorate changes, we get walloped," unquote.
Well, low Democratic turnout isn't the only reason Democrats may take a walloping in this November's midterm election. So says the nonpartisan political analyst Charlie Cook. Quote: "Things are starting to look grisly for Senate Democrats. At this point it sure looks to be a very ugly year for Democrats on Capitol Hill," unquote.

Cook cites two shadows looming over Democrats' reelection prospects: One, Obama's anemic job approval rating, down to 41 percent; and two, the backlash against the Affordable Care Act, aka "Obamacare," now even more unpopular than it was four years ago, in 2010, when the Democrats lost 63 seats and control of the House of Representatives. Today, according to Cook, between 10 and 13 Democratic Senate seats are now at risk, while only two Republican seats might change hands.

The most vulnerable Senate Democrats are Mark Pryor of Arkansas, Kay Hagan of North Carolina, Mark Begich of Alaska, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, and, last but not least vulnerable, Mark Udall of Colorado. Not most vulnerable, but vulnerable, are Democrats Al Franken, Jeanne Shaheen and Mark Warner.

The only Republican incumbent Cook rates as marginally challenged is Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. Two open seats formerly held by Democrats in Michigan and Iowa Cook rates as tossups. To take control of the Senate, the Republicans only need to pick up six seats.

Question: Mr. Obama took a shellacking in 2010. Will he be taking a walloping in 2014 midterms? Susan.

MS. FERRECHIO: He will. And I think his health care law as well will play a role in it. If you look at this month's election in Florida, Democrats lost a seat they were supposed to win, the special election in Pinellas County. And people right now are pointing to the health care law as part of the reason they weren't able to pull off the victory. That's being looked at as a bellwether. I'm always very cautious about that.

But independently of that, the layout that you just showed, I think, really tells the story, not only that there are a lot of really vulnerable Democrats, like Mark Pryor and Kay Hagan and Mary Landrieu and Mark Begich, but that map has expanded out in the past few weeks to include people like Mark Udall, who was not considered vulnerable, and especially Mark Warner of Virginia, who certainly was not in the category of someone in a competitive race.

What's happened is the president's approval rating has gone down. The health care law popularity has also sunk. People are getting really upset about that. And the economy is not improving. So all these folks are getting a closer look by voters, and now they're all worried. How do we know?
They're refusing a lot of -- they're not getting up, standing with Obama when he visits states to campaign. None of them are committing to appear with him.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Mm-hmm. (Acknowledging.)

MS. FERRECHIO: That's a sign that they know that they could really be in trouble. Now, they're not super-vulnerable, but it's still pretty early. I think within a few month we'll get a better picture just how big that map is.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: Predictions. Pat.

MR. BUCHANAN: De Blasio, the New York mayor, will be forced to back off many of his populist initiatives, whether he backs off his rhetoric or not.


MS. CLIFT: I kind of agree with Pat. It's de Blasio versus the rich in New York City, and the rich are winning.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: This is the de Blasio hour.

MR. ZUCKERMAN: I'm sorry.


MS. FERRECHIO: The Democratically led Senate will not pick up a minimum-wage bill.


MR. ZUCKERMAN: I would -- I'm going to have to respond to that, because that is so completely unrealistic. When a man's popularity is down to 38 percent, you know, it is not just because of the rich. They never supported him in the first place. So he's in deep trouble.

MR. MCLAUGHLIN: OK, I'll settle it for everyone. I predict that New York Mayor Bill de Blasio's favorable rating will drop to the low 30s before the 4th of July.


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