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Health Care Overhaul Tops Week’s Agenda in Washington

July 24, 2009 at 6:24 PM EDT
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Columnists Mark Shields and David Brooks analyze the top news of the week, including the fight over health care reform, the controversy surrounding the arrest of scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and the state of the economic crisis.
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JIM LEHRER: And to the analysis of Shields and Brooks, syndicated columnist Mark Shields, New York Times columnist David Brooks.

David, how has President Obama’s big public push on health care done so far this week?

DAVID BROOKS, columnist, New York Times: The public part, not so great. I mean, if you had to rate how they’re doing, inside Washington, they’re actually doing pretty well. They’ve got all these committees working on the bill, and the big story is they’re not going to pass it this summer. We’re going to have to wait until the fall until — and so that seems like a big setback.

But when you actually look at what the committees are doing and the substance of the bills, there’s actually much more overlap that I would have thought. And so I think, you know, they’re going to get the Blue Dogs, the centrists.

I would suspect within Washington right now there’s a very good chance they will get health care reform because of the way the bills are cohering.

Outside of Washington, the public part, that’s where the danger is. If you look at where the American people are, a slim majority now say — disapprove of Obama’s approach to health care. Among independents, 66 percent think it’s too big government.

So public support is eroding. But among Democrats in Washington, there’s a procession going on.

JIM LEHRER: Do you see it the same way, Mark?

MARK SHIELDS, syndicated columnist: Not completely. I think, first of all, Jim, that the president on his own presentation this week did not have a good week.

JIM LEHRER: He did a bunch of television interviews, including one with us.

MARK SHIELDS: With us.

JIM LEHRER: And then he had his news conference. He’s been everywhere.

MARK SHIELDS: But the news conference was the wall to wall. That was the national — I mean, people who were wise enough and shrewd enough to watch the NewsHour saw something else.

But in that presentation, I really thought that — all I could think of was, Adlai Stevenson once said when he was introducing John Kennedy — remember in classical times, whenever Cicero spoke, the people reacted and said, “He spoke so well.” But when Demosthenes spoke, the people said, “Let us march.” And after the Wednesday presentation, there was nobody saying, “Let us march.”

JIM LEHRER: No marching?

MARK SHIELDS: It was a listless, overly academic — and at a time when you really need to distil and to explain to people and to inspire and motivate them and educate them, I think the president, who was a great professor, according to everybody who sat in his classroom, failed the test on Wednesday night.

Public sentiment

David Brooks
The New York Times
It would be terrible if nothing gets done, because if two presidents fail, it's going to be a long, long time, but it would be also terrible and possibly even more terrible if we pass something and it doesn't address the fundamental issues.

JIM LEHRER: But what about David's point, that it's working in Washington, but it isn't working with the public?

MARK SHIELDS: It is working in Washington. Washington right now is going through convulsions. It always happens just before Congress goes into recess, that, "Oh, my goodness"...

JIM LEHRER: They suddenly say, "Oh, my goodness. We've got to"...

MARK SHIELDS: "This is a crisis. It's all -- if it doesn't pass." That has nothing to do with anything.

The reality is, the worst thing that could happen is for either House Speaker Nancy Pelosi or Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid to bring a bill to the floor and have it fail in the votes. The fact that they didn't bring it to the floor is not going to be cause for, you know, great concern in the nation.

Five out of six people in the country have health coverage. Three out of four of them, according to most polls and pollsters I talk to, are satisfied. They're not thrilled with it, but they're satisfied with it. And that's where the president and the case has to be made in the country, that, look, this is in the national interest.

It's something that's bigger than me personally. But at the same time, I'm not going to be punished and I'm not going to come out of this worse. But, you know, I think that's where the job remains to be done.

JIM LEHRER: Yes?

DAVID BROOKS: And I would say it's because, in part, because he's caught in the weeds, because you've got all these committees. And he's not running the negotiations; the committee chairmen are doing that. But he's sort of involved.

But then he's got a substantive problem, which is, for the majority who have health care and are basically satisfied with it, their main concern is the increasing costs. And so people have a legitimate question: How is it we're going to cut my costs by creating a new trillion-dollar entitlement? That's a legitimate question which he didn't really answer. How are we going to control costs without anybody sacrificing anything?

And he basically said, we're going to change the whole system, but it won't change for anybody. And people are skeptical, I think, now on the details. They buy the case that we need reform, but people are skeptical on exactly what we're going to do.

JIM LEHRER: Do they buy the case that he also makes, is that it's essential to the economy, as well as to health care and all the other things, per se? There's a bigger picture that has to do with the economy?

DAVID BROOKS: I was struck over the past couple of years that people really feel their wages are being squeezed. Now, why are wages being squeezed? It's not because total compensation is being squeezed. It's because compensation is going to pay for health care instead of salary.

JIM LEHRER: And it's going up every year, every month?

DAVID BROOKS: And I think people understand that.

JIM LEHRER: Yes. Do you agree with that?

MARK SHIELDS: I think he does well in making the case, the status quo is unacceptable. But I think the point you make is the key one, and that is, the green eyeshade approach that sort of, "Well, it's going to increase the deficit. Hey, we've got to look at this, the economic impact of it."

Now, more than just the fiscal impact, whether, in fact, there is an accounting problem in the short run for the federal government, the point is, to the national economy, if nothing is done, if this thing continues to go the way it was, not only will there be fewer people covered, but it will cost more and more. It will be a bigger percentage of the national...

DAVID BROOKS: And the only other thing I'd say is, it would be terrible if nothing gets done, because if two presidents fail, it's going to be a long, long time, but it would be also terrible and possibly even more terrible if we pass something and it doesn't address the fundamental issues.

And let's face it. If you look at what the CBO has said, what the Mayo Clinic has said, what economists I've spoken to have said, what economists on the front page Washington Post story, David Broder column, we've all spoken to a lot of health care economists. And it's not unanimous, but most of them say this does not fundamentally alter the fee-for-service incentives that you need to reduce, to bend that curve, and they haven't done that yet.

JIM LEHRER: It doesn't really change the system itself that much?

DAVID BROOKS: Right, that's the essential critique.

Republican reaction

Mark Shields
Syndicated columnist
This kind of crazy tough, you know, 'We'll take him down, and this is Waterloo, and we'll kill him,' that kind of language, Jim, that is why, in large part, Barack Obama won the presidency. People were so disgusted.

JIM LEHRER: Yes, what about the Republican reaction here, particularly that of Senator Jim DeMint, who said what's really important for the Republicans to do is to win the health care battle against Obama and "we'll break him"? What's that all about?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, this is how politicians talk in private. It's incredibly stupid to talk about it in public, because it makes it seem cheap and political, and this actually is an issue that touches everybody. This actually is a crisis.

And it makes it seem like you're opposing it simply for political reasons so you can break this guy the way you did Clinton in 1994. And they're actually doing well on the argument.

JIM LEHRER: The Republicans?

DAVID BROOKS: The Republicans. As I said, people are skeptical of the government health care plan, and then to distract with this narrow political Waterloo talk, it does a tremendous disservice to the criticism.

JIM LEHRER: I noticed, Mark, that Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, part of the leadership, has distanced himself from that, "Jim DeMint doesn't talk for me," or whatever, but I haven't heard any other Republicans do that.

MARK SHIELDS: They will in private.

JIM LEHRER: They will in private?

MARK SHIELDS: They know that Jim DeMint is a disaster. Jim DeMint, the kind of politics he's talking about, the knee-capping and this kind of crazy tough, you know, "We'll take him down, and this is Waterloo, and we'll kill him," that kind of language, Jim, that is why, in large part, Barack Obama won the presidency. People were so disgusted. They were furious with that politics.

This has nothing to do with people's lives. It all comes down to gamesmanship and who's going to get the edge up. He's indifferent to the issue involved, the fact that 14,000 people are losing their insurance today and 14,000 will lose their insurance tomorrow. That's just irrelevant to DeMint's equation.

And he made it on a conference call, talking to interest group politics. We talk about interest group politics. Who could most feed the raw meat to the true believers on his side?

Scholar's arrest

David Brooks
The New York Times
A Harvard law professor, a Harvard law president criticizing a white working-class cop, not even white, working-class cop for being stupid. That is just a mistake.

JIM LEHRER: Speaking of spoken words, David, President Obama caused quite an uproar -- and it's still playing out today -- what he said about the Henry Louis Gates arrest at Cambridge. How do you feel the president is -- how well do you think the president has handled that? Should he have said anything? You know, you don't think -- obvious question?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, in the beginning, it was idiotic. There are two prisms through which this can be seen. The first prism is through rape -- through race, excuse me, through race, which is we all understand cops picking on minorities. And that is the prism he saw it through and expressed himself.

The second prism is through class. A Harvard law professor, a Harvard law president criticizing a white working-class cop, not even white, working-class cop for being stupid. That is just a mistake. And so those two prisms were totally contradictory, and he got into trouble, and he caused trouble on both sides, frankly.

But then he's come out today and said, "The officer overreacted. Gates overreacted." He implied, though he didn't quite say it, "I overreacted." And I thought his statement today was quite excellent and will do a lot to tamp down this whole controversy.

JIM LEHRER: To stop it? What do you think, Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: Every minute spent, Jim, discussing this by the president, the White House, the staff is a disaster. I mean, it's totally off-message. This was about health care. This was 57 minutes of a press conference on health care. In the last three minutes, he showed animation, saying, I didn't know the facts here. I don't know the facts. One of the people involved is a friend of mine. I don't know the facts, but I do know this, that the Cambridge Police Department behaved stupidly.

Stupid is one of those buzzwords that we know you don't use about other human beings, and then kind of backpedaled and said, Well, I didn't mean Sergeant Crowley, who leads racial profiling classes, who's an exemplary cop in all these respects, so it was just a disaster.

What's really perplexing and confounding political people I've talked about this is the following: Barack Obama is preternaturally disciplined. He is the mountain goat of national politics, he is so sure-footed. And they knew this question was going to be asked. I mean, you go through the pre-briefing of these things. They knew this was one of the questions.

Did he intentionally give this answer or was it just a slip? Did they try the answer, and the word "stupid" was in there, and nobody there said it? And that's what's really confounding me.

All the energy, time, attention that they're off-message on health care hurts them because they're not dominating or improving their position on the debate. They're not dominating the national dialogue on health care. It's all playing defense about what happened in Cambridge.

F-22 funding

Mark Shields
Syndicated columnist
I think it was a victory for the president. It was a victory for John McCain. And as David said, it was a victory for Bob Gates and a victory for rationality. I mean, this is a weapons system that was designed for an era that no longer exists.

JIM LEHRER: The other thing that, of course, happened this week for the first time maybe ever, Congress declined to continue an expensive weapons system, the F-22 fighter jet. And, of course, it was a big victory for President Obama and Defense Secretary Gates. What happened?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, finally some sanity. I mean, John McCain was for killing this thing.

JIM LEHRER: That's right.

DAVID BROOKS: It was a Cold War-era relic. We already had too many. We had no enemy for it. But, you know, these things develop their own momentum. And I think because Obama led and Gates was superb throughout this, the whole thing, you finally were able to kill a weapons system and actually save a big chunk of money, so it was a big victory. And if it had not gone this way, it would have been terrible for Obama, and I think a lot of Democrats understood that.

JIM LEHRER: And the Congress stays with these weapons system no matter whether they're needed or not, right?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, and especially when jobs are scarce, people are losing jobs.

JIM LEHRER: Sure.

MARK SHIELDS: But this is a case where national security, in fact, did trump parochial politics and pork. And I think it was a victory for the president. It was a victory for John McCain. And as David said, it was a victory for Bob Gates and a victory for rationality. I mean, this is a weapons system that was designed for an era that no longer exists.

JIM LEHRER: Congress took some hits on Ben Bernanke, the chairman of the Federal Reserve. Did they draw any blood?

MARK SHIELDS: Some bruises, anyway. I mean, Chairman Bernanke occupies a unique position. He's the transitional figure who was there last fall in the Bush administration, is still there now. So when you get the banks reporting...

JIM LEHRER: And the only one of his kind?

MARK SHIELDS: That's right. And when the banks are reporting all these big earnings, and they're big back and let's go back to bonuses, you know, all of a sudden, it's, well, for goodness' sakes, he was the guy who told us, he was the architect and the advocate on this bailout, and maybe we voted for it, but this is their chance.

At the same time, he's paying a little bit for the excessive deference that was paid, almost submissiveness to Alan Greenspan, his predecessor, by the part of a worshipful Congress.

And, third, I'd say, if you're going to blame him for all that happened before, if the economy is improving, then does he get some credit for that? So I think that -- but he's in a unique position, I think, politically.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, I like that last point. I think, in this whole crisis, people will -- history will judge, but I think Bernanke so far has come out best of all. I think he's spoken at every step of the way with authority, with an informed view and, from what we can understand of the management of the crisis, in a very intelligent and stable way.

And people seem to forget in these hearings where we were a few months ago. It was a total panic, and now it's not a total panic. And somebody's got to get some credit for that. I think Geithner deserves a share of that credit, but Bernanke surely does.

Now, there are policy differences the Congress made clear, but I don't think they're going to touch his reputation in the near term.

JIM LEHRER: David, Mark, thank you both.

MARK SHIELDS: Thank you.