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Week In Politics: Ukraine, Poverty And The Health Care Deadline


Now to talk more about the week's political news with our Friday regulars, David Brooks of The New York Times. Hey there, David.


CORNISH: And E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and the Brookings Institutions. Hey there, E.J.

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

CORNISH: All right. We're going to go back in time for a moment to Tuesday.

PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN: (Speaking foreign language)

CORNISH: That's Russian President Vladimir Putin speaking in Moscow after signing the draft treaty to annex Crimea. Translation in that section, he's saying is an independent active participant on the international scene. Like other countries, it has international interests that should be considered and respected. And that speech went on to talk about the downfall of the Soviet Union, NATO expansion. Did this feel like a Putin reset?

BROOKS: Well, he's resetting the whole world order. We've had a sort of a post-Cold War order, which hasn't been great, but it hasn't been terrible. But borders were basically respected. Nuclear proliferation was sort of contained. And he's threatening to scramble all that. He's threatening to reintroduce a time of spheres of influence where borders are not protected. This crisis is already spilling over into Iran and hurting our efforts to prevent them from getting nuclear weapons. So he's fundamentally altering or threatening what we've taken for granted and so I think it's a big problem.

The Obama administration has responded reasonably well, ratcheting up a series of sanctions, starting out, unfortunately, too timidly, ratcheting it up more seriously now. The problem is we have not exactly struck fear into Putin and that's what's got to happen. And I'm getting to the point where I think we should start arming the Ukrainians to at least have some deterrence effect.

CORNISH: You know, elsewhere in the program, my co-host Robert Siegel digs into this question, but I want to put it to you, not just about Putin's version of event, E.J., but how the U.S. responds.

DIONNE: Right. Well, first of all, I think Putin seemed to be trying to make a case to the West, but what came through instead is the U.S. is trying to humiliate Russia and me and I sure wish we hadn't lost the USSR. And I think a deep reaction against what Putin did, altering borders by force and annexing land and threatening the stability of Europe, has created a kind of consensus here even though there's a lot of storminess at the top.

I was talking to an influential Democratic congressman this afternoon who said if you put people in a room, Republicans and Democrats, away from TV cameras where they want to bash Obama, the fact is everyone agrees we cannot use force. There's some disagreement about sending arms there. I think that could do more harm than good. But there's broad agreement that we have to ratchet up sanctions to try to say to him, there is a cost here.

The difficulty, by the way, is not just what we want to do. The Europeans are skittish about some of these because they're worried about their economies.

CORNISH: I want to just move on completely from this for a moment and talk domestic politics. It's spring break. That means it's kind of town hall time for some lawmakers. Congressman Paul Ryan was back in his district and he took some heat for some comments he made about inner city poverty. He was speaking on a radio program where he said it's a tailspin of culture in our inner cities in particular, of men not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working or learning the value and the culture of work. Here's how one constituent responded.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: There are people in the inner city who are white, Hispanic, who - Armenians, Danish, all types.

REPRESENTATIVE PAUL RYAN: That's right. That's exactly right.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: And everybody worked. You got here in a car or a truck or something. Somebody from the inner city helped make that. So when you say statements like this, it's not true.

RYAN: This is not a race thing. It's just a poor thing.

CORNISH: Now, Congressman Ryan took a lot of heat for these comments over the last few days, but the real issue is where is he going with all of this, right? We're pretty far out from the midterms. He's reasonably safe, obviously. What do you make of his focus on an anti-poverty agenda and how he's handled it?

BROOKS: Well, first of all, what he said was wrong and stupid. But I have a theory about it. I've interviewed him many, many times about poverty, as recently as about 10 days ago for about an hour, hour and a half. And what you've seen in Paul Ryan is an evolving view. He used to have the Jack Kemp view that poverty could be solved simply by economics, by enterprise zones, by lowering tax rates.

I think he's come to realize that's a failed policy and you have to think more broadly and more - with greater complexity about poverty. You have to take culture, you have to take psychology. You have economics. You have to take all these things into account. And unfortunately, the crude term for non-economics is culture and so he gravitated toward, oh, there's a cultural problem here and then he said the stupid thing.

Nonetheless, he has spent the last year and a half traveling around to different poor neighborhoods around the country with Bob Woodson and others and he does genuinely care about this and I think in sort of the intermediate phases of coming to a real, more intelligent view, he said something crude and inarticulate and stupid.

CORNISH: E.J., this constituent said, this sounds like a code word for black to me and he was not amused. What did you read into these comments?

DIONNE: Well, I think when you use inner city, that implies African-American to a lot of people. Look, I think Ryan, the way he talks, he acts as if he's a student from afar and not somebody who has really spent time beyond his tours there. And this is second time he's said something that's really troublesome. At the Conservative Political Action Conference, he implied that the parents of kids who bring their lunches in paper bags care more about them than kids who are on the school lunch program. No, kids on the school lunch program need the help. Now he's made this comment about work.

We can and should have a great debate about the relationship between culture and the flight of jobs from the inner city and economic change, but you can't just have it all on culture. And right now conservatives like Ryan say they want to help the poor, but so far all they've done is cut programs, and I think until they really offer a genuine program of their own, there is very good reason to be very skeptical about what they're up to.

CORNISH: David, I feel like you should respond to that.


BROOKS: Well, you know, the Ryan program is not something I would agree with entirely, but it does involve a lot of experimentation, a lot of decentralization. Republicans, I've been with them talking about poverty. There really is a much greater openness, even among people like Paul Ryan, to wage subsidies, to affirmative use of government. So they're not where I would want them to be in an anti-poverty policy, but they are genuinely concentrating on it, and they're much more creative than they were five years ago when it was just simply it was enterprise zones, which don't work.

DIONNE: Well, put some stuff on the table and maybe stop cutting some of the programs that really do help the poor including the working poor.

BROOKS: Well, if you look at Marco Rubio and Paul Ryan, they do talk about wage subsidies. That's a bold ideological departure for that party and to my mind a good one.

CORNISH: Well, the next question is will they keep talking about it, right? David Brooks of The New York Times and E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and Brookings Institution, thanks to you both.

DIONNE: Good to be with you.

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

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