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Week In Politics: Bowe Bergdahl And The Mississippi Senate Primary


Barely a week ago, President Obama was in the White House Rose Garden hailing the return of the sole captive U.S. soldier in the Afghanistan war, Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl.


PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: This morning I called Bob and Jenny Bergdahl and told them that after nearly five years in captivity, their son Bowe is coming home.

CORNISH: Before the week's end, President Obama was fending off controversy over the swap that brought Bergdahl home in exchange for five Taliban-linked Guantanamo Bay prison detainees.


OBAMA: We have a basic principle; we do not leave anybody wearing the American uniform behind. We had a prisoner of war whose health had deteriorated, and we were deeply concerned about it. And we saw an opportunity, and we seized it. And I make no apologies for that.

CORNISH: To talk more about this, I'm joined by our regular Friday political commentators, David Brooks of The New York Times. Hey there, David.


CORNISH: And E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and Brookings Institution. Hi, there, E.J.

E J DIONNE: Good to be with you.

CORNISH: So Congressional lawmakers up in arms about this, in part because they say the president skirted the law, right? He's required to give Congress 30 days notice, at least, before releasing Guantanamo Bay prisoners. Would that have really made a difference, though?

BROOKS: Well, not in the controversy. You know, I think the president should have wide latitude in acts of war. The chance was there to cut the deal. Whether you disagree or agree, he should have the chance to seize a moment like this, and consulting Congress, you know, slows things down.

DIONNE: I think that the principle that we don't leave POWs behind is - or at least was, before this moment and before this became so partisan, a widely accepted principle. Should he have given Congress some kinds of heads-up? I think that probably would have been better. But they felt that if this leaked, it might endanger him. And so they went forward. You can question the optics of the Rose Garden announcement.

But I have to say, I find a lot of this so unseemly that - especially for pundits who did not serve in Afghanistan to condemn Bergdahl without giving him an opportunity to tell his side of the story. Those who served with him have every right to demand accountability for what they see as actions he took. But the rest of us should give him a chance to talk. And so I think this thing got terribly politicized terribly quickly. And the one aspect that isn't completely politicized is this question of, what was the obligation to inform Congress?

BROOKS: I personally don't care what he said or whether he deserted or not. This is not for him. You know...

DIONNE: That's exactly right. I agree.

BROOKS: It's not about the health of one individual or the safety of individual. It's about our nation. It's about citizenship, and it's about the common bonds we have altogether.

CORNISH: There's also questions being raised, though, about the wisdom of the swap itself. You know, you had congressional Republicans arguing that this kind of thing gives incentive to capture Americans, encourages others to use this kind of action to make similar trades.

DIONNE: But that's been true of POWs all along. I find that a pretty peculiar argument. We have made deals on POWs. The Israeli example has been cited frequently, where they've traded up to 1,000 people for - over 1,000 people for someone. So I don't think that's an argument we would have heard in other circumstances with another president, and think of the alternatives. What if Bowe Bergdahl had died in captivity? What would the president's critics have said about that?

CORNISH: Meanwhile, David, there's going to be hearings, too. I mean, there's going to be more talk about this, and where can Republicans go with it?

BROOKS: Well, I do think the case that, you know, maybe this will cost more lives is a legitimate case. I mean, clearly if the trade had cost - ends up costing Americans 5,000 lives, then clearly it's not worth it. So you can't just dismiss the idea that there's some cost-benefit analysis here. But what we know about Bergdahl is very limited. We know he wandered off. We don't know if he deserted. We know he said some really horrible things.

But we've got to give - I think that E.J. is right. Somebody in combat deserves wide latitude in how they behave. They're under incredible stress, and they deserve that wide latitude until there's at least a court-martial or some kind of official hearing. It's essentially not about - unless there's some extreme case where the costs are disproportionate, our bias should always be cohesion - all in this together.

CORNISH: Meanwhile, you've had several lawmakers who had to scurry to their Twitter feeds to delete praise for Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl. And one of them was Senator Thad Cochran in Mississippi, who's obviously in the middle of a Senate primary that's gone into overtime. There's a runoff between him and Chris McDaniel. E.J., you've written about this race. Talk a little bit about, to you, what you're looking for going forward.

DIONNE: Right. I was down in Mississippi this week, and it was a fascinating circumstance where you have a long-standing incumbent who's delivered enormous benefits to Mississippi running against a Tea Party candidate. And a lot of - he was really encouraged to run for reelection, Thad Cochran was, by a lot of the power structure in Mississippi that didn't want to lose his voice because he had - being on the Appropriations Committee, perhaps a chairman if the Republicans win.

This was very good for Mississippi, a state that gets $3 back from the federal government for every dollar it sends to Washington. But he was stuck making this contradictory argument, where on the one hand, I deliver federal money for Mississippi. But really, I am as conservative as my Tea Party opponent, Chris McDaniel, which - one last quick point. If McDaniel wins this runoff - and I think you've got to say the momentum is on his side - you would have the very unexpected case of a seat in Mississippi being competitive for the Democrats. Travis Childers, a conservative Democrat is on the ballot, and there's some polling that shows him running even with McDaniel.

CORNISH: And, David, being an appropriator used to be a pretty good deal, right? You wanted your Senator to be able to bring money back to your district. I mean, is Cochran, like, the last of a species? Or - I mean, what should we make of - particularly Republicans and this kind of Republican?

BROOKS: It's been a downside for a long time, at least for five or 10 years. People are clearly sick of sort of the deal-making in Washington. And it is no longer - bringing home the bacon is no longer a net plus. What's interesting to me in this runoff is where the intensity lies. There's an easy assumption that the Tea Party has more intensity, are more likely to show up in the runoff. That doesn't seem automatically true to me right now. I think the Tea Party is not as enthusiastic as they were. And some of the more establishment voices in the Republican party want to seize back their party. And so this will be a fascinating test case about where intensity lies.

DIONNE: And Democrats can cross into this...

CORNISH: I was going to say, the wildcard here is anyone who didn't vote in the primary can vote now.

DIONNE: Yes, and McDaniel is already out with emails saying, Democrats - Thad Cochran is trying to seal the primary by having Democrats cross in. And it'll be very interesting to see if they do.

CORNISH: E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post and Brookings Institution. Thank you.

DIONNE: Thank you.

CORNISH: David Brooks of The New York Times. Thank you.

BROOKS: And thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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