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Shields and Brooks on Prospects for Jobs, Mideast Peace, Bipartisanship

September 3, 2010 at 12:00 AM EST
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Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks speak with Jim Lehrer about the week's biggest news stories including the latest unemployment report, Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski's primary loss, how the political climate will affect the next Senate and the start of new Middle East Peace talks.
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JIM LEHRER: And to the analysis of Shields and Brooks, syndicated columnist Mark Shields, New York Times columnist David Brooks.

Mark, we just heard Margaret’s — another of her superb reports, the last of her superb reports from Iraq. And, of course, there was also Middle East peace this week, the end of combat operations in Iraq. Is President Bush — President Bush — I will get this right in a moment. President Obama, does he get big points on the international front today — this week?

MARK SHIELDS: He may get big points, Jim. They don’t translate immediately or — into political advantage at home, where the economy remains the dominant issue. But I…

JIM LEHRER: It just doesn’t matter that much?

MARK SHIELDS: It doesn’t. I think that the Middle East peace is — he deserves credit for it. I am cautiously optimistic, probably more cautious than optimistic. But I think there are things going on this time, in part because of the president, in part because of the reality of Mr. Netanyahu is in a far stronger position than Olmert or Barak, Ehud Barak, were in 2008, 2008, at home to sell it.

I think there is an imperative nurtured by both King Abdullah of Jordan and President Mubarak of Egypt, as well as the other Sunni countries that are interested in containing Iran and the Shia influence. So, I think there are factors here. I mean, it’s still a tough slog, but I think it’s a positive development.

JIM LEHRER: But does the American people — do the American people care that much about Middle East peace anymore?

DAVID BROOKS: I think if there was a realistic prospect for some radical improvement, they would care. If there was a prospect that we could somehow diffuse the Iraqi — the Iranian nuclear threat, they would care, because that really does affect our troops over there.

But I think, realistically, there is really little chance of peace between Israel and Palestine over the next few years. The Israeli public is disillusioned after the withdrawal from Lebanon and Gaza. The Palestinians are a little more radicalized, a little more disillusioned with the Israeli leadership.

The Palestinian Authority is relatively weak, doesn’t control Gaza at all. And so the fundamentals just aren’t there. So, I think most people have that Missouri show-me attitude. And so, right now, the enthusiasm in America and maybe in the Middle East just isn’t there. But if there was a breakthrough, I think people would rally around that, because, as we have seen, it really does affect our lives.

JIM LEHRER: But relate that to Mark’s point that, in this current environment, all that really matters is the economy and jobs.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. No, that’s absolutely true. I mean, if — we went through several security elections. So, we shouldn’t forget that it can happen. But the normal thing is that it’s jobs or the economy or some domestic issue. And that’s certainly true when the unemployment rate is 9.6.

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

MARK SHIELDS: One — just some bright, encouraging — maybe it doesn’t mean anything, but this week, we had Hamas doing its best to sabotage the talks by killing four Israelis in one day and wounding two the next. And it didn’t stop the talks.

JIM LEHRER: It didn’t work, no.

MARK SHIELDS: No, that’s right. And that, to me — I mean, that, in the past, would have been an excuse…

DAVID BROOKS: I was at a dinner maybe a year-and-a-half ago with — in Shimon Peres’ house with Abu Mazen. And the relationship between those two men could not have been closer.

Just, they are old warriors. They have been through this. And, yet, that doesn’t mean peace is happening, because the relationship at the top level really doesn’t determine what is going to happen. And that is deep down. And there is no movement there.

JIM LEHRER: What is your specific reading about today’s jobs numbers?

DAVID BROOKS: I think it’s what we have to expect. A financial crisis is not like a normal recession. If you look at — Ken Rogoff of Harvard has done this book on observing 800 years of financial crises. And the lesson of that book is that we have very long, slow recoveries. You don’t get the quick upturn you get everywhere else. It just drags on.

Now, politically, the challenge is, can we do anything about it? And, for a time, I thought we could. And we threw a lot of stimulus money at it. But I’m sort of out of the mode that we can do anything fundamental about it over the next couple of years.

And what we should be focusing on is getting — making sure the recovery, when it does come, is a really strong and broad recovery. In other words, don’t focus on the short fizzing, trying to gin up the GDP growth next quarter, but say, OK, but, in three years, we’re going have a really strong economy with shared responsibility. And that means going back to basics.

JIM LEHRER: But the politics of that are two-year — it’s a two-year politic problem, not a three-year, right?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, David presupposes a national city manager who has got a 10-year contract. I mean, that isn’t the way it works. And I think that the — any leader, at a time like this, at a time of crisis, who doesn’t appear to be taking action, and is not acting, does so at his own political peril. I am not sure and confident that there are remedies that are going to — the president has said time and again there is no silver bullet. There isn’t. But I think…

JIM LEHRER: But there is talk that they’re going to — he’s going to do something next spring.

MARK SHIELDS: He’s going do something, but I think there’s a couple of things that are — that probably ought to be commented on, one, not the least of which, is we had a month ago, last August — in August, people were talking openly about a double dip. I mean, it was encouraging that we did have…

JIM LEHRER: Double-dip meaning we…

MARK SHIELDS: Double-dip recession.

JIM LEHRER: … go back and have another recession. Yes.

MARK SHIELDS: We go back. And it was encouraging. The glass is one-third full. Any time you begin the economic news was, it wasn’t as bad as expected, rather than it was better than expected…

JIM LEHRER: You mean today’s news. Yes.

MARK SHIELDS: … I mean, it’s not exactly a time for celebration. But I think that is not unimportant. And I do think that the reality is that it’s — unemployment is at 9.6 percent, and that is the story.

DAVID BROOKS: But the danger you get with financial crises is, people do try to do something short-term, and they end up creating so much debt or so much other problems or so much inefficiency, they end up making things worse. And you get these — the debacles, these debt debacles.

Now, the administration is talking about some, I think, responsible things they will probably unveil next week, maybe a payroll tax holiday, maybe some business tax cuts, maybe some infrastructure spending, a lot of little things. But we shouldn’t expect that is going to have a huge impact, certainly not this year. Maybe not next year. I think we just have to — I have just lost a little faith that we have the — we have the expertise or the capacity to fine-tune an economy in this shape, which we don’t really understand.

JIM LEHRER: Now, Christina Romer told…

MARK SHIELDS: Judy.

JIM LEHRER: … Judy a little while ago that she had some — putting — I’m just paraphrasing what she said — that she wishes the administration had been more aggressive. Now, whatever anybody thought, whether it was aggressive or not aggressive, Republicans have been all over what the White House has done and what the Democrats and Congress have done. So, what — how do you read that?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, it is an intellectual debate over what to do and what caused the problem. The Romer case is that there is a model, and, if you throw money into it, you will produce jobs. The counterargument, which is made by people like…

JIM LEHRER: In other words, you take federal money, and you spend it for bridges and whatever, it is going to…

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, or, classically, throw it out of airplanes or helicopters or whatever.

JIM LEHRER: Right.

DAVID BROOKS: But, if you pump money in, that will stimulate some activity.

JIM LEHRER: Right.

DAVID BROOKS: And that is a plausible model. The CBO has projections based on that model. The counterargument made by Robert Barro of Harvard, John Taylor of Stanford, and most Republicans is that, psychologically, it doesn’t work, because people see the debt coming, and they think, oh, they’re going to tax me, so I’m going to play it safe. Or they see the debt rising, and they say, I don’t feel more secure. I feel less secure.

And, psychologically, when they feel less secure, businesspeople are less likely to take risks and invest and hire. And so these are the two arguments. And I’m on one side of it, the John Taylor side, but, to be honest, nobody really knows the answer.

JIM LEHRER: And you are kind of on the other side.

MARK SHIELDS: I’m on the other side. I think…

JIM LEHRER: You are on the aggressive side.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes. And I do want to say a shout-out to Christina Romer. I think she’s been good. And I think she’s about as good a spokesperson for this administration as the administration has. I mean, there is an optimism about her, just an upbeat quality.

But I think that, politically, Jim, what the Democrats have to do right now is, they have to redefine this election. We are in an election right now where all the polls show that the Republicans are ahead. All the available data

that all of us run into every day, the races that are being fought over are Democratic seats. They’re not Republican seats. The Democrats are playing defense. The Republicans are playing offense.

And I think where the president has failed politically is to make a case on the economy and, I think, to draw the differences. And it’s more than just trying to blame George Bush, whom he called on the phone this week, trying to remind people of that policy.

I think it comes down to, he’s got to draw out the distinction on the taxes. The taxes — the Bush tax cuts are going to expire on December 31 for everybody across the board. And I think he’s got to be willing to say, the Republicans are willing to raise everybody’s taxes, and put the economy at jeopardy, just to defend tax breaks for the top 1 percent of Americans.

JIM LEHRER: You think that has got to be the most…

MARK SHIELDS: I think he’s — if he does that — and I just think he’s got to recast it. Otherwise, it’s parallel skiing, and the Republicans are ahead, and they’re going to continue ahead, and they’re getting closer to the finish line.

DAVID BROOKS: Republicans welcome that fight. The Republicans…

JIM LEHRER: They welcome — they would love that.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, they would love any fight about taxes. They are like a tank. They don’t necessarily shoot diversely, but when you’re in their target zone, they’re pretty good. And taxes are their target zone. And their argument is that: Listen, we want to cut everybody’s taxes. But if you raise taxes on those top rates, you will be increasing taxes on the majority of small business profits.

And that’s the argument they will make, that you can’t tax small businesses at higher rates and expect them to hire more. And I’m not sure, politically, how that works out. I will say that we have had several elections, with John Kerry and Al Gore and others, who said, they want to raise taxes — I want to cut taxes on the top 1 percent. They want to — they don’t want to do that. And the Republicans have done pretty well often in those fights.

JIM LEHRER: Speaking of pure politics, what did you think of the Lisa Murkowski loss in Alaska and the Joe Miller victory?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. It’s a message about aggressiveness. The Republican primary voters want, not only opposition, but really aggressive opposition. They don’t want a hint of compromise. They want you to be super-aggressive, not, as they say, get along and go along. And, so, I thought that was the key message, which will have an effect…

JIM LEHRER: Aggressive — aggressive against — in attacking Obama, Democrats, whatever?

DAVID BROOKS: Everybody, Democrats, right. So, it will change the tone of the next Senate, more aggression, and it raises the idea of repealing health care.

MARK SHIELDS: By their definition, your political opponent is an enemy. It really is. I mean, it’s the Sharron Angle mantra. And it’s similar.

JIM LEHRER: That’s in Nevada. That’s in Nevada, yes.

MARK SHIELDS: They demonized Lisa Murkowski in this race as well.

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

MARK SHIELDS: And, you know, Ronald Reagan was about as formidable an adversary as anybody on the Democratic side would ever want to run into, as principled, conservative. But, at 5:00, he could sit down and have a drink with Tip O’Neill. Under the rules and under the mores of these folks, any cooperation, any civility toward the other side is a sign of collaboration and collusion. And I — boy, I think that doesn’t augur well for our politics, nor this city.

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I mean, my whole life was based on what Mark just said, but I have said we should wait and see. In Massachusetts and other places, we have had people who are pretty partisan, but surprise you and sometimes can be nice. And Reagan was plenty tough. But he was nice. Mark’s right. And maybe they will be tough and not — but I — personally, you know, the Republican Party is not headed in the direction I want to see.

I do think you have to collaborate. And that has become a dirty word. There is no question about that.

JIM LEHRER: OK. Thank you both very much.

MARK SHIELDS: Thank you.

DAVID BROOKS: Thank you.