ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
I have three items for our Friday political commentators to tackle this week, a special election in Florida, a broadside at the CIA from a key Senate Democrat and the politics of the Ukraine crisis. E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and the Brookings Institution and David Brooks of The New York Times. Good to see you both.
DAVID BROOKS: Good to see you.
E.J. DIONNE: Good to be with you.
SIEGEL: And first, Republican David Jolly won this week's special election to fill the seat of the late Republican Congressman Bill Young near Tampa, Florida. David, have Republicans now market-tested their slogan for November: a noun, a verb and Obamacare?
BROOKS: Yep. This was an excellent win for Republicans. Stu Rothenberg, the election guru in January, said this was a must-win for Democrats. They had a good candidate, a big chunk of money, sort of a marginal district, but maybe leaning a little Democratic and so they were expected to win. The fact that Jolly was a former lobbyist, not an especially popular profession in most elections these days, the fact that he could win just by mentioning Obamacare over and over was a good sign.
Two, the second thing is Obama himself is unpopular and third, there was a sign that the Republicans who'd been really trailing in some of the technocrat technique of getting the voters out have improved their machinery.
SIEGEL: E.J., are Democrats dispirited and are they running away from Obamacare?
DIONNE: Well, people always read too much into special elections and that's exactly what I'm going to do right here because I agree that this was a real defeat for Democrats and that they had better learn from it. I think turnout is a big issue. This was very low turnout, even compared to the 2010 midterms. Conservative Republicans are eager to slap the president in the face and Democrats have to figure out how to turn their people on.
I have a slight difference on Obamacare. Clearly the Republicans think that repeating Obamacare over and over is enough. In fact, there's evidence that Alex Sink, the Democrat, fought the Republicans to a kind of draw on this issue and there are other issues out there that won them the race. Even Karl Rove thought this. But I think rather than run away from it, they need a robust defense of Obamacare.
They need to embrace it because all of the advertising and all of the dialogue is so negative, that it creates a drag going into a race and requires all this pushback. So Democrats had better - should have won this and they're going to have to do better than this if they're going to do well in the fall.
SIEGEL: If that's the case, David, it sounds like the battle is joined for the fall. It's Obamacare.
BROOKS: Yeah. And Obamacare is two things. First, it is the actual policy, but second, it's a stand-in for big government. And so I think it's more a metaphor for big government liberalism than anything else and that's why Republicans are stressing it.
DIONNE: I don't think it's Obamacare alone unless the Democrats let that happen and that's part of the lesson here. They've got to get Obamacare seen differently. People aware of the benefits they'd lose if it were repealed, but then they have to move on to the larger economic issues.
SIEGEL: OK. Next, a very unusual moment in the Senate this week. Senator Dianne Feinstein, the California Democrat who chairs the intelligence committee, ripped into the CIA. She said the agency spied on her committee by searching for computer files related to the committee's investigation of CIA interrogations. Senator Feinstein is often a often a defender of the agency, but not in her speech Tuesday on the Senate floor.
SENATOR DIANNE FEINSTEIN: I have grave concerns that the CIA's search may well have violated the separation of powers, principals embodied in the United States Constitution.
SIEGEL: I'm curious to hear from both of you. Does the question of surveillance and the increased surveillance post-9/11, does it have any real political traction in the country? David Brooks, what do you say?
BROOKS: I actually do. I was up in the Senate this week and people - Senators were just gobsmacked by this because, as you say, Senator Feinstein is not a critic. She's not Frank Church reincarnated. And so I do think there is a sense - a bipartisan sense maybe on the edges of both parties of national security state overreach and you get - we're one big scandal away from really having Church hearings.
These were the hearing back in the '70s, which...
SIEGEL: Frank Church of Idaho.
BROOKS: ...really reregulated the intelligence communities. We're a step away from having that and if this scandal does blow up - and I have to say, the facts are murky right now. If this scandal does blow up, there's a tipping point where really you could get a broad bipartisan people saying these people are out of control.
SIEGEL: E.J., you agree?
DIONNE: This is a big deal. First of all, the CIA went after one of the agency's best friends in the Senate, which is a really dumb thing to do. They started leaking negatively. But Feinstein didn't give this speech lightly. There were leaks in the paper saying, well, actually, the Senate staffers had gotten hold of this material improperly and she was furious about that because she said, no, that's not true.
In fact, the CIA went into a computer that was reserved for the Senate to take of this information and you cannot - spy agencies have to keep secrets. Sometimes they have to lie, but they're not supposed to lie to Congress and they're not supposed to do stuff like this. The only way to control them and to have any democratic accountability is to have a real relationship with the Congress. So I think this goes much farther.
SIEGEL: OK. And one other very big issue. Yesterday, President Obama hosted the Ukrainian Prime Minister at the White House and he said this about the crisis in Ukraine and the Crimea.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We will continue to say to the Russian government that if it continues on the path that it is on, then not only us but the international community, the European Union and others, will be forced to apply a cost to Russia's violations of international law.
SIEGEL: On Ukraine and Russia, does it appear that politics is stopping at the water's edge? And if so, is U.S. policy sound? David Brooks, you first.
BROOKS: I think so. I give the Obama administration an A for what they've done so far. They've been tough. They've been out front. They've really been cracking down in a slowly but very rigorous way against the Russians. They've taken clear sides. You know, I'd love to see every Russian oligarch have their kid kicked out of British prep school or something like that. That would end the crisis in a week.
But they're doing that sort of thing. They're freezing assets, they're stopping visas, they're raising money to help the Ukrainians. It's a comprehensive policy which I think is getting pretty broad support.
DIONNE: It ought to be bipartisan, and on the actual steps being taken, it is - it is broadly bipartisan. There is still all this sniping at Obama, as if there were a whole lot more that we could do than we are doing. But I think there's a toughness here and that Putin will pay a price, and I think he may pay the biggest price in the long term in Ukraine because he's lost a lot of friends that he might have - or he's lost for Russia a lot of friends that Russia might have had.
SIEGEL: Even though we expect a referendum on secession of Crimea to take place on Sunday...
DIONNE: A phony referendum, it should be said, under occupation.
SIEGEL: Well, E.J. Dionne and David Brooks, thanks to see you.
BROOKS: Good to see you.
DIONNE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.