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Shields and Brooks on Sebelius’ legacy, the 1964 Civil Rights Act

April 11, 2014 at 10:13 PM EST
Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks join Judy Woodruff to discuss this week’s news, including the resignation of Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius and the health care law that defined her tenure, the anniversary of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and potential candidates for the 2016 presidential election.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: And to the analysis of Shields and Brooks. That’s syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks.

Gentlemen, welcome.

MARK SHIELDS: Judy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So we’re going to talk about Common Core in a minute.

But, Mark, I want to start with what everybody’s been talking about today. And that is Kathleen Sebelius out as secretary of health and human services, after the big brouhaha over — over health care reform. What’s her legacy?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, first of all, let me just admit up front, Kathleen Sebelius has been a personal friend. For 46 years, I have known her. So, I like her.

I have not talked to her about this. But part of her legacy, in a strange way, is a Washington story that nobody really talks about. And that is — Bob Gates did in his book — and that is each succeeding White House brings more and more power to the White House. Cabinet officials become essentially figureheads, to a great degree, I mean, State and Defense perhaps obviously less than others.

And so everything is micromanaged from the White House. The idea that the health care plan, the biggest initiative of this administration, the most historic action, wasn’t going to be managed by the White House was just absolutely imagination. It just couldn’t be true. They were on it. They were in it up to their eyebrows.

So, when it went wrong, somebody had to take the hit, and that was Kathleen Sebelius. And she took it. She was secretary of HHS. She stepped up manfully, to use a bad adverb. She took responsibility. She took accountability. She apologized.

And if it works — because the rule is very simple. All — anything that goes right, Judy, the president gets credit. Anything that goes wrong…

JUDY WOODRUFF: Somebody else.

MARK SHIELDS: … it goes to a Cabinet officer or other factors.

If this works out, if health care does turn out the way its supporters and many Americans want it to, then all credit will go to President Obama. If it doesn’t, then Kathleen will be blamed, fairly, unfairly, or maybe — maybe not by historians, but in the short run.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Will she get some of the credit, though, David, if this works out in the long, long run?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I guess so.

I — if it works out in the long, long run, I mean, we remember Frances Perkins, who was instrumental in passing Social Security. And she gets credit for that. So, I think if it works out in the long, long run, which I’m skeptical about, that she will get some credit about it.

Mark’s right. I wasn’t — haven’t been thrilled with the way the president sort of off-loaded blame during the whole Web page fiasco. I thought he publicly shouldn’t have done that. He should have said — taken it on himself, just as a management, as a leadership technique.

I think it’s fair to say a couple of things. First, she was — with all the reputation that has gone on, and it’s very negative about her around Washington, she was certainly not a dynamo at HHS. And, sometimes, to move an organization, you have to be just a — just a dynamo.

And it seems that she was not that. Nonetheless, it’s also true that secretaries do not run their agencies, that the agencies run their agencies, and the secretaries can have only a limited effect on what’s going on.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You mean the bureaucracy.

DAVID BROOKS: The bureaucracy, the career people, are really running the thing.

And it was always going to be hard to get government workers, who are not Silicon Valley tech — tech geeks, to start up a pretty ambitious Web page — Web site. And, so, I’m a little less down on her than is the common currency right now in Washington.

MARK SHIELDS: I would take exception with David, in the sense that — I mean, I’m sure David talks to a lot of people.

I think that Kathleen got high marks from the kind of cliques in the Cabinet, all right, in Washington. And the people whom I know and who I respect and whose performance I respect were high on Kathleen. The people who worked for her were fiercely loyal and very committed and kind of emotional in support.

She was twice elected as a Democratic governor of Kansas, the reddest of Republican states, and she was one of the five best governors in the country, according to “TIME” magazine. So, I mean, she was not — she was a person of considerable accomplishment when she came here. And she was key to Barack Obama.

I mean, without Barack — she — when Hillary Clinton became the woman candidate in 2007, Kathleen Sebelius was one of the few major women officeholders who endorsed Barack Obama.

JUDY WOODRUFF: That’s true. That’s true.

Well, now they have named another woman, David, Sylvia Burwell, who has been running the Office of Budget and Management, to take her place. Does this allow the administration to get a fresh start with health care?

DAVID BROOKS: I don’t think the changeover of the Cabinet secretary is going to have — is going to change anybody’s opinion of what they think about the thing.

It strikes me as an exceedingly good choice. Burwell overcame some early disadvantages. She went to Harvard, got a Rhodes Scholarship.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVID BROOKS: But despite that background, she’s managed to do OK in life.

She worked through the Clinton years. She’s worked through the Obama years. She does around town — I have only met her a few times — but she has a sterling reputation, both for intelligence, for policy knowledge, experience, but especially for management implementation skills.

So if she’s — if you walked around the Obama White House looking for people with the top reputations, she certainly would be among them.

MARK SHIELDS: I think it was a good choice, and puts the Republicans on a — who have made Obamacare and Affordable Care Act their centerpiece of what they stand for, and that’s it — they stand for opposition to it — it’s going to be tough to oppose her, having voted 96-0 to confirm her as budget director just a year ago.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Unanimously.

MARK SHIELDS: That’s right.

So, I think it’s going to be tough to oppose her. But it’s not a new start, but she — you don’t have the face there any longer that you can blame and use as a target politically. You can’t blame her.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, this week, we also observed the anniversary of another big, big piece of legislation, David, the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

The whole week, we have heard a lot about it. How do you see — how do you believe the Civil Rights Act has changed this country?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, it’s one of the great pieces of legislation of the 20th century. Aside from the legal effect it had on how we enforce laws, it sent a marker that discrimination of all sorts was just not going to be tolerated.

And, of course, it’s been an imperfect journey along that route, but the intellectual shift happened with that law, and that the people who were defending any sort of discrimination or were motivated by sort of unfairness were on the defensive. And I think it accelerated the increasing fairness of society.

The one point I have said about all the coverage of it, it seems to me a little politically-heavy, a little LBJ-heavy. If you looked at some of the momentum up to the law, to me, the crucial event, a crucial event was the March on Washington.

And it’s worth remembering, then, when Bayard Rustin and Philip Randolph really first initiated the idea for that march, there was intense opposition from the establishment civil rights groups. And it was seen as a bold move. It was only after Birmingham that you got some momentum behind that thing.

And that — and it’s an emphasis that to pass major legislation like that, it really helps to have a gigantic social movement first. And it’s very hard to do that without the social movement first.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Out in the country.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes.

No, and the March on Washington, just if you’re going to start passing out credit, Walter Reuther of the United Auto Workers was the organizer, architect, engineer and producer of that. Without that — but it was transformational, the Civil Rights Act.

I was there the night it passed the Senate in 1964.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You were there in the Senate?

MARK SHIELDS: I was.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Whoa.

MARK SHIELDS: But, in 1965, that — this was way down the predicate — it changed, Judy, that an African-American family could go into a McDonald’s, a father could go in with his children and buy a hot dog or a hamburger or whatever, which it was federal law that there was discrimination in movie theaters and bus stations, in transportation, in hotels, motels.

That changed. But ’65 was the key. And that was the Voting Rights Act.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The Voting Rights Act.

MARK SHIELDS: Because that was power. That was actual power at the polling place. And, to me, that was the key.

But, without ’64, you never get to ’65. And without either, you don’t — Lyndon Johnson was — was central. He was — he was dominant, make no mistake about it. He was a man, like all of us, with faults, but he was a legislature/executive unmatched.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But, 49 years later, we’re still talking about voting rights, the act, as Mark said, David, the law that passed the year after the civil rights.

DAVID BROOKS: Right.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What’s the main unrealized promise of both of those pieces of legislation?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, it’s the inequality of living conditions, that these many years after the Civil Rights Act, African-Americans are — still have lower graduation and lower incomes. There are still inequalities, and not only inequalities of opportunity, but inequalities that are defined along racial lines.

And so that’s still a remaining challenge. And I would say that’s more a challenge of economic opportunity and social policy, less of some of the legal stuff. But it remains a core stain on our society, that the color of skin is really — either advantages you or disadvantages you in the course of your life.

MARK SHIELDS: I agree with what David said.

I would just add that Colin Powell put it very bluntly when he spoke in North Carolina to a group of businessmen after that state passed a very restrictive voting rights act or voter I.D. law. He said, there is no voter fraud. There is none. And all of these voter I.D. laws that have been passed since the Supreme Court decision last year limiting the Voting Rights Act are intended for one purpose.

And that’s to suppress nonwhite voters. And that remains a part of unfinished business in our politics.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, while we’re talking about voting, and it’s this year, of course, the midterm election in 2016. It’s never too soon to talk about that.

Two prominent maybe presidential candidates in the news this week, David, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush repeating his support for immigration reform and for the Common Core, which we just heard Jeff’s conversation about.

Conservatives have jumped on him. What does that mean?  Do we — do you think he’s going to run? What’s your thinking about Jeb Bush?

DAVID BROOKS: I personally don’t think he is going to run. That’s just a guess, based on no knowledge, just simply because he’s not shown the intense desire in the past. And I have never seen a candidate where that intense desire flowers in middle age. You’re born with it or something.

I think he’s right on the merits on both subjects. And he’s reminded — reminiscent of where his brother was, frankly, and where the Republican Party used to be not too long ago, in support of Common Core, which are high standards, and much higher standards than the state standards, in support of a compassionate immigration policy.

And so I think he’s absolutely right on the merits. But where the Republican Party has shifted, it makes it much harder than it was when his brother ran.

MARK SHIELDS: There are two kinds of conservatives. There are five minutes to midnight conservatives and there are five minutes to sunrise conservatives — five minutes to midnight conservatives, that things are bad, and they’re going to get worse.

Five minutes to sunrise conservatives think, yes, things are bad, but they’re going to get better. And Jeb Bush — Jeb Bush is very much in the second category. And the Republican Party, especially the congressional party, is overloaded with five minutes to midnight conservatives.

They’re just hoping that Obamacare implodes. They’re just hoping that things go wrong and get worse, that unemployment somehow rises. And I think, in that sense, he brings something to the race that it desperately needs. I would say there’s one number to look at to decide whether he runs.

He has approximately a 40-inch waist right now.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Whoa.

(LAUGHTER)

MARK SHIELDS: If that goes down to 34 inches, I will say he is running.

(LAUGHTER)

JUDY WOODRUFF: Are we going to start using that as a measurement?

DAVID BROOKS: Then he will be an it’s 5:00 somewhere conservative.

(LAUGHTER)

MARK SHIELDS: That’s right.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, very quickly, 45 seconds.

Hillary Clinton, the other possible presidential candidate, had a shoe thrown at her, Mark, in Las Vegas yesterday. She ducked. What does it say about her character, do you think?

(LAUGHTER)

MARK SHIELDS: She handled it superbly.

There are very few unscripted, spontaneous moments in politics. Yesterday was one of them in Las Vegas. And Hillary Clinton showed humor, she showed grace, and she showed a certain self-deprecating quality. I thought it was a 10-strike for her.

DAVID BROOKS: But throw a flip-flop.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVID BROOKS: Throw something challenging. Don’t throw a big shoe, or maybe a cowboy boot.

JUDY WOODRUFF: It looked like a heavy shoe, wasn’t it?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I think you want to throw a flip-flop, just something symbolic, not to hurt anybody.

JUDY WOODRUFF: She asked if it was a bat or Cirque du Soleil.

(LAUGHTER)

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right.

You guys are both the Cirque du Soleil every — every week.

(LAUGHTER)

JUDY WOODRUFF: David Brooks, Mark Shields, thank you.