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STATE OF THE UNION WITH CANDY CROWLEY
Interview with John Beyrle; Interview with Lindsay Graham, Dick Durbin
Aired March 2, 2014 - 12:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
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NATO SECRETARY GENERAL ANDERS FOGH RASMUSSEN: Russia must stop its military activities and its threats.
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ACTING UKRAINIAN PRIME MINISTER ARSENIY YATSENYUK: This the red alert. This is not the threat. This is actually the declaration of war to my country.
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CROWLEY: In order, that was the NATO secretary general and then the acting prime minister of Ukraine responding to the escalating crisis in Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula.
I'm Candy Crowley. This is a special edition of "State of the Union."
The prime minister of Ukraine says his country is "on the brink of disaster," this as Russian troops amass in Crimea and the United States condemned what it calls "Russia's invasion and act of aggression."
Earlier on "State of the Union," Ukraine's ambassador to the U.N. said his country will need military help from other nations.
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UKRAINIAN AMBASSADOR TO THE UNITED STATES OLEXANDER MOTSYK: We are to demonstrate that we have -- we have our own capacity to protect ourselves, as it was decided today in the parliament, and we are preparing to -- to defend ourselves.
And naturally, we -- if aggravation is going in that way, when the Russian troops, they are enlarging their quantity with every coming hour, naturally, we will ask for military support and other kinds of support.
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CROWLEY: Russia says it reserves the right to use force to protect its military personnel and Russian citizens in Crimea.
In response to the crisis, the United States, Great Britain and France are suspending their participation in prep talks for the G-8 summit Russia will host in June.
We will get to our guests in just a moment, but first, we want to go to CNN's Ian Lee. He's in the Ukrainian capital of Kiev.
Ian, we are hearing about a new incursion with the border today. What do you know about it?
IAN LEE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Candy, what we're hearing right now is from the Ukrainian Border Services website. They're saying that two of their installations were overrun today on the Crimea by a mob with what they say is support of Russian military troops. When they overrun these installations, they say that the attackers broke all the doors, destroyed telecommunications and monitoring equipment.
Now, the forces inside those installations were able to keep the weapons away, safeguard the weapons in a locked room from the attackers. Right now, we're hearing that the border security is trying to negotiate with the attackers to stop this incident and calm things down. But it's definitely tense times in the Crimea, Candy.
CROWLEY: Ian, we're hearing a lot from the current Ukrainian government and from their representatives, saying we're going to stand up to the Russians; this can't happen. But in reality, is there enough wherewithal inside Ukraine -- even if there's the will, is there the wherewithal to stand up to the Russian military?
LEE: I think the answer to that is just no. They do not have the size of the military. They do not have the firepower that the Russians have. They don't have the equipment. You know, Russia has more advanced equipment than the Ukrainians. And they would be able to, in a blow-to-blow war, take them on and defeat them pretty quickly.
Now, that being said, there are some factors to take into account here. In the Crimea, the Tatar minority has said that, if the Russians were to go in and fully take the Crimea and try to annex it or make it its own sovereign state, they said they would start an armed insurgency.
Now, that, while they are a minority, they're a significant minority, making up about 10 percent to 20 percent of the population in the Crimea, as well that this isn't going just to be a country that will roll over. People here in the streets say that they will and that they're ready to fight the Russians if they come.
And the government is spending a lot of money, or all their money, really, what they have, in preparing the military. And this is a country that's strapped for cash, yet they are saying that their number one priority now is making sure the military is ready for any war with Russia.
CROWLEY: Ian Lee in Kiev for us. Thanks, Ian. I want to go to the phone now and talk to CNN's Ben Wedeman.
Ben, I know you were at a Ukrainian military base earlier today where there was a showdown or a face-off of sorts between what appeared to be Russian and then Ukrainian forces on the other side.
I guess the overall question here, is it clear to you, Ben, who's running the Crimea area right now?
BEN WEDEMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Certainly, for all intents and purposes, Candy, it does appear that the Russians are effectively in control of Crimea. When we arrived at the airport, we saw these men in uniforms, without insignia, but it's very well-known that they are Russians. We went today to the base of the 36th division of the Ukrainian army and we saw the entire base. The perimeter was surrounded by hundreds of these troops, again, without insignia. But it's clear they are Russian.
Inside we saw a handful of Ukrainian soldiers who were swearing never to surrender, never to give up, but just a little while after that, we saw at least 10 trucks carrying reinforcements for the Russian forces there.
Now, the Russian forces near the front gate of the base, most of them did not have ammunition in their weapons. But the further away you went, they were armed. And these appear to be very well-trained troops. They don't want to engage in any conversations with journalists, but it's very clear that they are in control of the Crimea.
Now, keeping in mind that this peninsula of about 2 million people, 60 percent of the population is Russian; 25 percent is Ukrainian. And outside that base, we saw many Russians who had arrived with Russian flags, declaring that the Crimea is part of Russia. The Ukrainians on the scene did disagree with them. There weren't any fights or anything, but it's very clear, in terms of military forces on the ground and at least a large part of the population, that the Russians are in control of Crimea. Candy?
CROWLEY: Ben Wedeman, thanks so much for your assists today. We appreciate it.
Joining me now is John Beyrle -- he was the U.S. ambassador to Russia during Obama's first term; and Jill Dougherty, who is the former CNN Moscow bureau chief and now a fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.
Thank you both for coming.
I want to try to get into Putin's head. And you two are the ones to do this.
On the slate of things that the U.S., or the E.U. in concert with the U.S., or any entity could do that would move Putin to reconsider what he's doing, what is the thing that is most likely to move him? BEYRLE: I think probably -- we talk a lot about leverage, at this point. I think, obviously, the main focus now needs to be in trying to get Russia to disengage, to have its forces step back and avoid a shooting war. Right now, you've got guns pointed but they actually haven't been fired.
So there's still a chance to hopefully convince Mr. Putin, convince the Kremlin to take a step back and find a negotiated settlement to this.
Russia has made it very clear that it feels its people in Crimea are somehow being repressed or attacked. There's no evidence that that's been occurring on a widespread basis, but let's have observers go in. Russia's a member of the Organization of Security Cooperation in Europe. They regularly send monitors into conflict situations. The United Nations could possibly play a role here.
So, obviously, I think the administration has been weighing the options for consequences and costs, as the president talked about. But the main focus right now, I think, has been in trying to get the Ukrainians and the Russians to enter into some sort of direct talks to defuse the tensions so that we don't need to go to the next step, which is sanctions, cancellations, summit, and the like.
CROWLEY: So there's an interim step, but it would have to involve the current government in Kiev at this point. We have to get those two, one to, sort of, recognize the East and the other to recognize the West, in some way, shape, or form?
BEYRLE: Well, I saw some indications that Yulia Tymoshenko, the former prime minister of Ukraine, who actually lost in the election to President Yanukovych, might be planning a trip to Moscow on Monday with the acting prime minister, with the acting president, to try to enter in direct talks with the Russians to defuse tensions.
There's a lot of talk about Mrs. Tymoshenko possibly not being part of the future inside Ukraine. She's still looked at by a lot of people as part of the problem. But she does have access to President Putin. She is at the level that President Putin might be willing to talk to if he indeed is interested in finding a negotiated settlement.
CROWLEY: Jill, let me -- I want to ask and have you answer the same question, but, first, this really struck me. It's from Mikheil Saakashvili, who -- from Georgia, obviously knows what it's like to come face to face with Russian troops. He's the former president of Georgia. And one of the things he said in an interview was "Putin wants to be at the same time a peacemaker and a troublemaker. He did it quite well in Syria."
And this answer leads me to believe that's true, that you make trouble and then you...
DOUGHERTY: I think there's an unfortunate trend that you can see with President Putin, which is, he's a lawyer, he's very legalistic when he approaches these issues. He will say, as Ambassador Beyrle just said, our people are realistically in trouble in Crimea and we must protect them. It is our sacred duty to protect them.
On the other hand, he will depict himself, you know, as a statesman who is upholding international law. This is not a violation in his mind.
But realistically on the ground, he is in some form or another beefing up his troops. He is having these troops that are obviously Russian forces but without the insignia on the streets.
And I have to say with the media, if you look at the media presence of the Russian media in Ukraine, especially Eastern and Crimea, they are whipping up fear of the Kiev government and making this very, very unstable.
CROWLEY: So there is a role, if, indeed, a meeting does take place between the current government and Putin and the former prime minister, there is room for him to get out of this without -- he can look like that peacemaker.
Or is he in Crimea to stay?
BEYRLE: It's very difficult to say. That's really the $64,000 question right now. And it's interesting, as we look at this, because some of us have been dealing with Putin for a long, long time.
Remember that this is also the man who greenlighted American military bases in Central Asia a week after 9/11 against the counsel of his war cabinet.
This is the Russian president who, even at the height of anti- Americanism, when the Duma passed a terrible anti-adoption law, kept open a refueling base in Central Russia that we used to ferry troops and material in and out of Afghanistan.
So he's a man who's certainly a rational actor and is capable of making pragmatic decisions. The hope is that there is still time for him to pull back and make a pragmatic decision --
CROWLEY: To be that Putin.
BEYRLE: -- to be that Putin.
CROWLEY: Jill, let me ask you to bring this home in some way, shape -- and that is it's clearly unstable in Ukraine right now, both in Kiev, clearly in Crimea.
What is that to the United States?
DOUGHERTY: I think it's very serious because if you have -- the first time really since the end of the Cold War you have troops potentially moving on the borders of Europe; NATO is getting involved, at least discussing, looking very carefully. I think it's highly dangerous. It's a dramatic situation when you actually have armed forces.
It did happen in Georgia, but Georgia was kind of different. Here we are, right on the borders of Europe.
And I think, Candy, you know, we have to -- John and I were talking about this before. We have to really ask ourselves where President Putin is going, a rational actor who would seem to have an interest in not having this escalate, but at the same time he is escalating it.
And it would appear to me that we're kind of moving toward in -- a conclusion that I hate to draw, but is that he really doesn't care, doesn't care very much what the United States does, doesn't care what Europe thinks; he doesn't really think that they are going to have an all-out war.
So he can afford, in his estimation, to begin to do this maneuvering. But in doing this maneuvering with people, as you can see on the screen right now, angry, fearful, possibly armed. It's explosive.
CROWLEY: Mr. Ambassador, you, on this same score, the idea that he simply doesn't care what the West does, do you sign onto that? Because there's a lot of people who think there's not a thing we can do to make him --
BEYRLE: Well, I hope -- I certainly hope that's not true. And I think as Putin and the people around him weigh the risks and the benefits of this, they need -- and they are looking very seriously at the economic component of this.
When we talk about leverage, canceling G8 summits, obviously, I would imagine that Putin already factored that possibility in when he made this decision to move the forces into Ukraine.
But the reality is that Russia is dependent on the international economy in a way that wasn't true 10 years ago. Fully one half of Russia's foreign trade now is with Eastern -- is with European Union countries.
Russia depends on European imports to keep its stores filled, to keep the standard of living that Russians have gotten accustomed to. Russia depends on Europe as a market for its gas. And I think that that has started to be taken into account.
I noticed a tweet yesterday from Alexei Kudrin, the former finance minister, very well respected in Russia and an adviser economically to President Putin, who said we need to look very carefully at the socioeconomic consequences to us if we go through with this.
CROWLEY: Yes. It's more global village than it used to be. John Beyrle, former U.S. ambassador to Russia, thank you for being here.
Jill Dougherty, anytime come back (INAUDIBLE) for that matter. I'm glad to see you.
There is no shortage of opinions about what the U.S. should do. Senators Dick Durbin and Lindsey Graham are next.
CROWLEY: Joining me now, Senator Dick Durbin, the number two Democrat in the Senate, and member of the Foreign Relations Committee, and Senator Lindsey Graham, republican from South Carolina. He sits on the Senate Armed Services Committee. Gentlemen, thank you both for joining me today. I'm kind of tempted to say Ukraine go and see what comes out because this is an ever-changing situation.
Let me, though, try to sort of channel this and say to you, Senator Graham, the president has come out and spoken very forcefully on Friday about consequences. The U.S. has made it clear that it disapproves of what Russia has done. You've been tweeting about strong statements. What more do you want from President Obama at this point?
SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM, (R) SOUTH CAROLINA: Well, number one, stop going on television and trying to threaten thugs and dictators. It is not your strong suit. Every time the president goes on national television and threatens Putin or anyone like Putin, everybody's eyes roll, including mine. We have a weak and indecisive president that invites aggression.
President Obama needs to do something. How about this, suspend Russian membership in the G-8 and the G-20 at least for a year starting right now. And for every day they stay in Crimea, add to the suspension. Do something.
CROWLEY: Senator Durbin, I imagine you're going to disagree, at least, with the description of how President Obama's handled things. SEN. DICK DURBIN, (D) ILLINOIS: Well, of course, I disagree. You would expect the president of the United States to speak out against what Putin is trying to achieve here. We got to remember that Putin developed his diplomatic finesse as the head of the soviet secret police. And his idea of invading countries occupying them and really daring people to go to war is the tactics -- those are the tactics of a bully.
And, what the president has done is speak out against them. This notion of taking him out of the G-8 has already been suggested by the administration, some members, and I think it's the right thing do. Now, what Congress has to do, what the Senate should do, quickly, is a resolution condemning what Putin has done.
Second, saying that if Ukraine will stand up for real reform, that we're going to back them through the IMF and making it clear to our allies in NATO that that alliance is strong and neighbors of Russia that we are going to do everything in our part to discourage further aggression by Putin.
CROWLEY: Does any of this -- I hear of, you know, resolutions of condemnation. I hear the president say this is wrong, you're violating the law. There'll be dire consequences. Given the stakes for Putin in this area of the world, why would he care about any of this?
GRAHAM: Candy --
DURBIN: I'm not sure that he does --
CROWLEY: I'm sorry. Go ahead, Senator Graham. We'll be back, Senator Durbin, in a second. Go ahead.
GRAHAM: Well, I tell you what, he very much cares about Democracy on his borders. I would like to create a Democratic news around Putin's Russia. Durbin -- Dick Durbin is right. Georgia is trying to seek NATO admission through the membership action plan. Let's accelerate Georgia's admission into NATO. Moldavia is under siege by Russia. Let's help Moldavia. Poland and the Czech Republic.
We abandoned our missile defense agreements with them to protect Europe from a rogue missile attack coming out of the Mid East. Russia backed Obama down. If I were President Obama, I would reengage Poland and the Czech Republic regarding missile defense. I would admit Georgia to NATO. I would have a larger military presence in the Balkans to NATO members who are threatened by Russia.
I would fly the NATO flag as strongly as I could around Putin. I would suspend his membership in the G-8, be the G-7. The G-20 would become the G-19 at least for a year. And every day he stays in the Ukraine, I would add to it.
CROWLEY: Senator Durbin, first, to the question of why would Putin care about this condemnation? He is much more interested in Crimea than he is about what the United States thinks about him. DURBIN: Candy, Vladimir Putin and the Russians just spent $50 billion on this Sochi charm offensive to try to redefine Russia in the 21st century. That Sochi charm offensive died on the streets of Sevastopol when he moved in thousands of troops days after the closing ceremony. He is trying tries to have it both ways.
He wants to have this grandiose vision of empire at the expense of those countries that neighbor Russia are depending (ph) on it for natural resources, and then he wants to play like he's part of civilized society. His oligarchs should be denied an opportunity to fly back and forth to Europe at will. We've got to make him feel that there's a price to pay for this conduct.
GRAHAM: And he does care about missile defense systems in Poland and the Czech Republic. He does care about the fate of Georgia. He invaded the country. So, let's challenge him where we can. Let's secure our friends, and if at the end of this, Candy, he has not paid a price, if Russia is not isolated, if there continue to be membership in good standing with every international organization, shame on us all.
CROWLEY: In the end, can there be any sort of deal that backs Russia off that does not include Russia's concerns and take into consideration Russian concerns when it looks at the Ukraine, it sees western intervention, it saw top U.S. officials out before the president was ousted and fled to Russia. There were top U.S. officials on the streets in Kiev supporting the demonstrators.
So, Putin looks at this and says the west is, you know, interfering in sort of my neighborhood. So, doesn't Putin's ties to -- perceived or real -- to the Ukraine and to Crimea have to be considered if there's to be a diplomatic solution? Senator Durbin.
GRAHAM: Well --
DURBIN: Well, let me say, from my point of view, I agree with Lindsey when he talks about missile defense and strengthening NATO alliance. Now, let's be honest about it, the Crimea has been in a crucible for decades, if not centuries, over its identity and its future. And it was the Ukrainian government that invited the Russian government to establish a base agreement in Crimea. That complicates it as does the ethnic breakdown within that region.
But we've got to make it clear to Putin that if there are Russian speaking people on the soil of another nation, that doesn't give him license to invade -- to protect him when there's no obvious threat against him, because there are Russians spread all over the former soviet empire there in countries that are today very free, very democratic, and very friendly to the United States. We've got to draw the line.
CROWLEY: Senator Graham, I want to read you something from Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur. She is part of a Ukrainian caucus on Capitol Hill, Democrat from Ohio, in which she said in an interview, "If I was President Putin, I would have been worried with the collapse of the party of regions" -- that is the government in Kiev -- "about peace in the Crimea. I understand Russia's military posture."
This, obviously, runs counter to anything either you or Senator Durbin is saying right now. What do you make of that position that there is, you know, a Russian view to this that is not totally understood or taken into account?
GRAHAM: It's a horrible position for American political leader to take, to legitimize what's happening. The Crimea is part of the Ukraine. In 1994, there was an agreement as the former Soviet Union split up -- and by the way, Putin's trying to create a new Russian empire and we should stand up. The Crimea is complicated, but it is part of the Ukraine. 1994 agreement, the Ukrainians gave up all nuclear weapons to maintain territorial and sovereignty.
This is not the way to influence a democratic state. Yes, people in Kiev need to understand Eastern Russia has its complications. But nobody in the world, including a member of Congress, should legitimize using 15,000 troops to invade a country to have your say about what's going on regarding your neighbor. This is an invasion. The Crimea is part of the Ukraine. This is not the way you settle disputes.
Can China go in and take islands away from Japan? The Iranians are watching. If we do not decisively push back against Putin and make him weaker and all of our friends in the region stronger, the Iranians are going to misunderstand yet again (INAUDIBLE) regarding their nuclear program. So much is at stake.
Putin's on the wrong side of history. He's on the wrong side of the law. Make him pay a price. The Ukrainian people are dying for their freedom. I hope we will stand with them. Not just in words, but in deeds.
CROWLEY: Senator Durbin, your reaction to what Congresswoman Kaptur had to say?
DURBIN: Well, I disagree with Marcy. I think we need to be sensitive to the Russian populations in Crimea. As I've said, this is an historic reality. But the notion that Putin can send in, as Lindsey graham says, 15,000 troops or whatever the number in order to so-called protect them just defies the sovereignty of Ukraine and especially the point he made, an agreement, which these Russians were signatories to back in 1994.
DURBIN: I would say to my friend Congresswoman Kaptur, we can be sensitive to the Russian reality in Crimea but don't give license to Vladimir Putin to invade the sovereign nation.
CROWLEY: Senators I want to get you (ph) both (ph) to standby because when we return I want to ask you about the president's budget cuts and military spending with all the saber rattling in Russia, is this a time to cut back? Senators, stay with us.
CROWLEY: Back now with senators Durbin and Graham. I want to take the opportunity to talk to both of you about the new budget proposal from Secretary Chuck Hagel out of the Pentagon which basically would cut the army, kind of World War II levels, cut back on equipment, getting ready for kind of a new sort of warfare. I feel as though I have heard that for some time. I imagine that both of you agree -- are going to agree it is too much, but what would you suggest in terms of cuts in the Pentagon? Senator Durbin?
DURBIN: I can tell you that we live in a dangerous world. The United States has the strongest military in that world and we want to make certain we always have military that can keep America safe and free --
CROWLEY: Would these cuts make it less -- would these cuts that are being proposed make it less powerful?
DURBIN: Well let me address one point you made, Candy, at the opening. And that is that this is going to reduce our troop's strength below World War II levels. The men -- primarily men and women who served in the military in World War II were the greatest generation, the best soldiers on earth and they proved it. But today's soldier brings to battle more capacity, more capability and more firepower than those soldiers in World War II ever did. So numbers alone don't tell the story. We have to make certain we have the very best military, well trained and that we have the best technology to back up our national defense. But at the same time, acknowledge the reality. We are not going to -- I hope we're not going to engage in another land war like Iraq or Afghanistan, a long- term commitment that costs too much in human lives and treasure. And secondly, we've got to make certain that we reduce spending in all areas.
CROWLEY: Senator Graham, it certainly sounds as though, given the state of the world and the kinds of warfare that are seen in the future, that you don't need as many people as you did when there were World War I, World War II, Vietnam, any of those.
GRAHAM: Well, my goal is to deter war. Read the report as to what's going on in North Korea. Do you think the person running North Korea is rational? It is a gulag. It is Nazi type tactics being practiced in 2014. What if the leader of North Korea woke up tomorrow and said it's time now to take the south. 440,000 members of the United States army is a gutted army. We do have a lot of technology available to our troops. Every soldier goes into battle with an array of technology and equipment not possessed in World War II. But you still need trigger pullers.
So this budget by President Obama guts our defense. It is the smallest army since 1940. The smallest Navy since 1915 and the smallest air force in modern history. If you went into Iran tomorrow to have to neutralize or stop their nuclear program, you're going to need every b-2 and f-22 you can get. The f-16 and f-18 are great planes but they're not stealth. So if you're going to modernize your military for future conflicts, this budget will not allow you to do it. And the idea you're going to make -- you taking off what kind of wars you're going to fight assumes the enemies of our nation will agree with you.
CROWLEY: Senator Durbin, the last word to you. In fact, the "Wall Street Journal" made much the same point as Senator Graham did, saying, look, the purpose of fielding a large army is to minimize the temptation for aggression. How far is too far to cut back on troops?
DURBIN: Well, I don't know that we can pin our national defense strategy on the irrationality of leaders of North Korea because I don't know that we can ever build a national military that would deter some craziness by someone. But the question is can we protect the United States, can we protect our citizens and our interests around the world? And that means, for example, strengthening the NATO alliance, making certain that we do have troops in South Korea that are there, god forbid something occurs in the future.
I have great confidence of the men and women in the military and our technology to continue to meet that challenge. But we have to acknowledge the obvious. If we are going to reduce our debt for future generations, we are going to have to cut spending on the defense and non-defense sides.
CROWLEY: Senator Durbin, Senator Graham, thank you both for joining me this morning.
GRAHAM: Thank you.
CROWLEY: We're going to keep our eye on the crisis in Ukraine, but up next -- Joe Biden's got his eye on 2016, we think. But is the Hillary Clinton hurdle too high for him to clear? Our panel is here to talk about it.
CROWLEY: Joining me around the table, Bill Burton, deputy White House press secretary during Obama's first term. Amy Walter, national editor for "The Cook Political Report." And Ross Douthat, "New York Times" columnist and CNN commentator. Welcome all. Complete right turn here. Or I guess maybe a left turn
But in any case Joe Biden, out and about. It seems to me a little bit he has over the last month raised his profile and was on "The View" Tuesday. Want to play just a quick part of that.
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JOE BIDEN, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Whether she runs or not will not affect my decision.
BARBARA WALTERS, CO-HOST, "THE VIEW": You haven't said, no.
BIDEN: No, I absolutely have not said no. This is likely I run or I don't run. I just truly have not made up my mind.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
CROWLEY: We don't even need to say who she was. (INAUDIBLE) how bad this is.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Elizabeth Warren.
CROWLEY: So, Hillary Clinton he was talking about obviously. It seems to me that Joe Biden would so much like to run but that Hillary Clinton has everything to do with it. Am I reading this wrong?
AMY WALTER, NATIONAL EDITOR, "THE COOK POLITICAL REPORT": No, you're not. He's the sitting vice president of the United States of America. Beyond Dick Cheney who took himself out, when have you not had a two term sitting vice president not considering the front-runner for the nomination? I mean he should be right out front. But you're right, I mean, this is somebody who knows that he's not the first choice of the party. It is Hillary Clinton. But he also knows, like many of us in this town do, that it's not a 100 percent guarantee that Hillary Clinton runs so why should he be sitting on the sidelines right now?
ROSS DOUTHAT, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: There's no reason for him to sit on the sidelines but the reality is that the only way that he would possibly beat Hillary Clinton in a Democratic primary is if he personally climbs in a fighter jet in the next couple hours, flies to the Crimea, punches several Russian soldiers in the face, and then does it 15 more times between now and the election. It's just -- I mean and I think we went through this with Hillary in 2008 where people talked about her inevitability and then she turned out not to be inevitable after all.
But two realities I think make this landscape different. One is that actually her poll numbers are much better now going into 2016 than they ever were going into 2008. Her lead over potential challengers, Biden included -- and he's obviously the one with the most name recognition is immense. And I think what that leads to is an assumption that most people in D.C. have that if there is any kind of challenge to Hillary, it's going to have to come from somewhere new and fresh and unexpected, you know, coming out of left field, as it were, rather than from someone of known quantity.
CROWLEY: You think it would have to be someone from her left. And that new and exciting person would be?
BILL BURTON, FORMER DEPUTY WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Well, I don't know that there's anybody who's really lining up to run against Hillary Clinton. But I will say, this is a special circumstance. Yes, Joe Biden, excuse me, is the sitting vice president and there hasn't been situations where the sitting vice president isn't considered as much, but because of 2008, because of the energy that Secretary Clinton left on the battlefield, I think that she is so far ahead, more so than any front-runner in the history of Democratic politics.
CROWLEY: Because there is a huge (INAUDIBLE) of particularly women who think she was robbed. Who really do believe that in -- you're shaking your head yes. Because it really doesn't just feel like --
BURTON: (INAUDIBLE). I don't want to take all the credit for the 2000 primary but I will say though that Joe Biden would make an extraordinary president. It's why president Obama picked him to be his vice president. But there is this lingering energy and maybe some animosity among people who feel like this was Secretary Clinton's time and now they want to make it happen in 2016.
DOUTHAT: Extraordinary is really the right choice of words I think for a Biden -- for a Biden presidency.
BURTON: All joking aside, he has a very impressive resume. The experience that he would bring to the Oval Office would be unparalleled really with many modern presidents.
CROWLEY: Let me move us back two years and talk about the mid- terms this November. I want to show, you first of all, what we call the generic ballot, which is generally if it were held today would you vote Republican or Democratic, 42 percent of registered voters said Republican, 39 percent said Democrats, on down the line to don't know or won't vote. So what does that really mean? Because it seems to me we always dismiss the generic ballot but the truth is, it used to be a huge margin so you have to watch which way a poll is going.
WALTER: Right. I mean the thing is the generic doesn't mean as much in an era when redistricting has made almost every seat safe from the national political environment. But what it does talk about is just the overall mood, right? And the mood right now is favoring Republicans. That generic ballot traditionally is more supportive of Democrats. There are more people who are registered as Democrats in this country, who identify as Democrats.
CROWLEY: Which makes it kind of even worse looking at it.
WALTER: That's worse, right. When you say, a 4 point lead for Republicans on generic that translates into big numbers of seats in like red or purplish states. If you are in Arkansas or here (ph) in Alaska, Louisiana, North Carolina, places where the Senate is resting, that four-point lead in the generic looks more like a 10-point Republican lead and that's really bad news.
DOUTHAT: Going back to 2010, which was of course a big Republican sweep in the House, I believe the generic ballots were quite -- were relatively close.
BURTON: But if you go back to 2006 --
BURTON: Last time Democrats won control at this point in the cycle, nobody thought that Democrats were going to be able to take control of the House. So I think it's still very early and the best that Democrats can do is what they're doing. Like the DCCC where they're recruiting good candidates, they're outracing Republicans quarter after quarter and I think that it's -- we're still very far out to know what's going to happen.
CROWLEY: True. But again the trajectory cannot comfort Democrats at this point.
DOUTHAT: The landscape is not good. Look, second term, midterm, tend to be referendum on the sitting president for better or worse and right now president Obama's numbers are not good. I don't think that the White House's handling of Russia and the crisis in Ukraine is instilling a great deal of confidence at the moment. Obamacare is still relatively unpopular and we sort of lose sight of this, but while the economy is in decent OK shape it's never come roaring back the way the White House wanted it to.
CROWLEY: Folks still aren't feeling when you say how is the economy doing. I want to show you two sort of internals to this poll, the first one Republicans versus Democratics on -- Democrats on favorable/unfavorable. First this is the opinion of the Republican Party, 67 percent of the people in the Republican Party have a favorable image of the party. Right. Whereas 85 percent of Democrats have a favorable -- Democrats have a favorable view of the Democratic Party. So does this speak to enthusiasm? Does this speak to the Tea Party? Translate these for me.
WALTER: The Tea Party. In some ways the Republican Party is still trying to figure out what its overall image is going to be. Who are we as a party? And they've been fighting this since the 2010 election and that's fair because they don't -- they don't have a standard bearer in the way that Democrats do with somebody sitting in the White House.
The bigger problem I think for Republicans right now, they can win this election, they can do very well in the mid terms but their overall approval rating is so low that they go into 2016 with an image that is so tarnished and so weighed down with negatives that it's going to take more than just one good election to get rid of them.
BURTON: And also so conflicted. Look at the state of the GOP when you look at Arizona, for example, where Jan Brewer vetoed the anti-gay law. When Jan Brewer is saying that you're too far to the right, I mean you're really out there. And, you know, in the Republican Party I think you've got people like John McCain on the one side and you've got people like the folks who voted that law and sent it to Jan Brewer's desk on the other side and people don't feel good about that.
DOUTHAT: People in our line of work completely misrepresented the content of that law. That was at least moderately helpful to --
CROWLEY: We'll end it there. Ross Douthat, thank you. Amy Walter and Bill Burton, thank you all for being here. Stay with CNN as we continue to follow the unfolding crisis in Ukraine. Former secretary of state Madeleine Albright is at the top of the hour on Fareed Zakaria, "GPS."
CROWLEY: Thanks so much for watching STATE OF THE UNION. I'm Candy Crowley in Washington. If you missed any part of today's show find us on iTunes just search, STATE OF THE UNION. Fareed Zakaria, "GPS," is next after a check of the headlines.