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Weekly Political Analysis of Mark Shields and David Brooks

January 10, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT
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JIM LEHRER: And to Shields and Brooks, syndicated columnist Mark Shields and David Brooks of the Weekly Standard.

David, unemployment, the economy; there are now competing administration and House Democrats stimulus packages on the table. Which one of those is off to the best start?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, the president’s one has certain advantages in that he controls both Houses of Congress and the White House. And that’s going to be the basis for the deal.

To me the best part of the plan is the dividend tax cut. I say that because we have a system now that encourages corporate debt and so you get these waves of bankruptcy. We have a system now where the corporations have lured investors by monkeying with the numbers instead of paying real dividends with real money. And that’s a needed corporate reform. And whether it’s going to have any stimulative effect, I doubt it, but it is a good corporate reform. I think that’s the best thing out there right now.

JIM LEHRER: The Democrats think that’s — would disagree with every word David Brooks just spoke,. would they not.

MARK SHIELDS: They’d acknowledge that the President was in charge of the White House and the Congress and –

JIM LEHRER: But from that point on.

MARK SHIELDS: And, Jim, I think that the operative word here is stimulus. I mean, the economy certainly needs a stimulus.

JIM LEHRER: Does it really?

MARK SHIELDS: If you look at — either that or we’ve got a jobless recovery, which is really terrifying, I mean, in the long-term. During the eight years of William Jefferson Clinton, you remember that guy that was there for eight years, between the two Bushes and their great economic records, the economy of the United States produced an average of 230,000 jobs every single month, every month.

Under George W. Bush, the economy has lost an average of 69,000 jobs a month every month of the first two years, over 100,000 this month reported — last month reported today. So it needs a stimulus. And yet the White House — there is no stimulus here. Glenn Hubbard, the top economist in the White House, said, no, this is not a stimulus package. And the best projection is they produce 190,000 jobs this whole year. And I mean that’s where it has to be and — whatever you say about the Democrats’ plan, they had to come up with something because that was the principal criticism of them during the campaign — that they did not have anything different — is that it does at least goes towards stimulating and trying to bail out the states that are really hurting.

JIM LEHRER: David, what is going on?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, if I could lapse into economic jargon, economic stimulus plans are stupid. It’s like day trading. You think you can time the market. We’re going to pass the bill maybe in May; they’ll have effects in August. If somebody knows where the economy is going to be in August or exactly what leverage you are going to be pulling to stimulate the economy in August, we don’t know that.

To me the best thing you can do is what the Bush administration has done in part, which is to just have some sensible long-term reform. Now they do have a theory that they think will stimulate growth. And their theory is that you’ve got this thing called the wealth effect. When the stock market goes up, people feel richer, mostly rich people, and they spend more.

And it’s interesting because in the old days, Republicans were supply-siders; you’ve got to get people to work and invest. Now, under this plan, it’s a shift in ideology, you have got to get people to spend more with the wealth effect. And that is a theory, it’s a plausible theory. You get economists on both sides and people like aren’t really qualified to sort it out but it is a fundamentally sound reform.

JIM LEHRER: What about making the tax cuts permanent? That’s another major part of what the president wants to do.

DAVID BROOKS: Accelerate the income rate reduction. There are a whole bunch of parts of this. And if I had to bet how it’s going to all wind up, I’d say the president will get a lot of his dividend cut. I don’t think they’re going to accelerate the income rate cuts very much.

JIM LEHRER: I notice even a couple of liberal or moderate to liberal Republican senators, Lincoln Chafee, Susan Collins, came out against that today.

DAVID BROOKS: There are a lot of other things I think they will get. There’s some family tax credit reduction; there’s some investment incentives that both the Democrats have agreed upon. I think if you look at the basic shapes of the two plans, we’re headed towards some kind of significant compromise.

JIM LEHRER: Mark, the thing that — we’ve had a couple of discussions earlier in the week on this and I kept asking everybody, well the president used the term “urgent.” Is there a feeling of urgency about this? Is something going to happen? Is David right, whatever–.

MARK SHIELDS: That’s the point I was trying to make — if it were urgent, we would be talking about job creation because that’s what we really need, is stimulus to create jobs. The fastest buck in town, Jim, does not go to the wealthiest man in town. The fastest buck in town goes to people who spend every week, who buy groceries, who pay rent. I mean –

JIM LEHRER: How do you — how do the Democrats get money to them?

MARK SHIELDS: The Democrats have two ways of getting it to them. They have direct aid to the states. They have extension of, further extension of unemployment benefits — we now have the smallest number of people employed in the private sector than any time in the last two years today. That’s how bad it is. These are people — 8.6 million people out of work looking for work right now. So they need money. And the people-300 bucks means a lot to somebody making 25 grand.

Now, David is talking about a long-term restructuring. And there are three measures of any economic initiative. One: I think first of all does it work? Is it effective? This is not going to be effective — I think David acknowledges that — as a stimulus this year. Second, what does it do for fiscal responsibility? Now you got to give George Bush credit. When he came in there was a big argument in the country about we were going to pay down the national debt too soon and all this money we were going to have, $5.6 trillion national debt, we would pay it off and what would we do, go in the stock market or whatever else?

We don’t have the debate anymore because the debt is not going down; it is now going up to $7.5 trillion. And the third one is the fairness, and I think the fairness in this one — I think this is where they’re vulnerable. What George Bush has done is gone to the base of his party and to the pioneers and to the wealthiest people who are the beneficiaries.

JIM LEHRER: Now, is that what this is all about? Is this basically a philosophical discussion that it really cannot be bridged — I mean, somebody is going to have to come up with more votes and that the Republicans have more votes right now, and they’re going to get what they want?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I don’t think you ever win people over. It’s not like I support the plan because I think the rich people need more money — they’re driving around in Lexuses with unheated seats or something like that and need that extra buck.

It’s a legitimate problem. The Republicans accuse the Democrats of playing class warfare when it goes to the top 5 percent. I don’t think that’s quite right because we have a legitimate problem with inequality. On the other hand, this program does address the fundamental problem, which was one of the reasons we had this bubble. And one of the different emphasis I think I would have with Mark is that we have got — what is it — a four or five trillion dollar a year economy.

When the stock market went down for three years in a row, we lost 90 percent of one year’s economic activity. That’s a huge problem that George Bush was confronted with. This goes a long way to addressing that fundamental thing we have been suffering from. It wasn’t something Bush caused that we have the bubble; it wasn’t something Washington caused, but we had it and this goes to the heart of it.

JIM LEHRER: Maybe I haven’t read everything, but there seems to be a kind of sameness to the debate, the same words that goes to the rich, the Democrats say it goes to the rich. You’ve got to get money in people’s pockets, the middle class, we do it through tax cuts. That’s what the two parties have been saying for years. And they say it no matter what the economic crisis is. Am I misreading that?

MARK SHIELDS: No, I think the lines are drawn. I think they’re drawn more clearly now, Jim. I think you asked about the political fallout. I mean Democrats, you’ll recall, when George bush came in — in 1981 — 12 in the Senate voted for the Bush tax cut then. Now three of them are no longer around to vote; I mean two of them voted for it, Max Cleland in Georgia and Jean Carnahan in Missouri, George Bush went out of his way as a good Republican to beat them and he did beat them — almost beat Mary Landrieu. So there’s three votes that are gone. I mean, the lines are drawn a lot more clearly. Democrats have made up their mind that (a): They have to stand for something, they have to fight for something and that this is wrong. And the Republicans, I think have drawn their lines as well.

JIM LEHRER: In a more general way, Congress has now been in business for– was in business for about a week and now it’s going to go away again in a few days and come back after the State of the Union. What kind of start did it have? The new Republican leadership, both, et cetera –

DAVID BROOKS: To me was the interesting dynamic between two people. There was this little fight over extending unemployment benefits and Hillary Clinton was the emergent Democrat in that fight. She was the power center. And I found that just an interesting phenomenon that people looked to her.

JIM LEHRER: Explain what happened.

DAVID BROOKS: They’re extending benefits to one group of people, which I think is 750,000, and there’s a question of another million, what do you extend to them, and Frist and Republicans thought they had a deal, the Democrats according to Republicans, backed out and wanted this extension and then there was a little floor fight there. And in that crisis where things were going back and forth — Hillary Clinton, central Democrat.

To me the other interesting figure is Bill Frist. I’ve been down in Nashville all week. I never covered a man who people admire so much on a character level. People just think he is a wonderful person, liberals, conservatives, black, white, they don’t know where he stands politically, and that is still a bit of an enigma, but it will be interesting to somebody who has been a success and a dominating figure in every field he has gone into go into this field where he has got 100 senators coming at his face. So Hillary and Frist are two new and interesting dominating forces in the Senate.

MARK SHIELDS: The most important decision this week was Tom Daschle’s decision not to seek the presidency. I think Republicans were dying for him to do it.

JIM LEHRER: I think you both predicted he would.

MARK SHIELDS: That’s right, absolutely

DAVID BROOKS: I think Mark predicted it a little more than I did.

MARK SHIELDS: I predicted it because I had better sources. There is no question and I mean up until that moment of truth, he — they were all set. They had the announcement scheduled and everything else. But I think, I think (a) the Democrats needed his leadership in the Senate. It’s a mostly untested congressional leadership with the exception of Denny Hastert and Tom Daschle and I guess Harry Reid in the Democratic side of the Senate, everybody else is either new to the job or absolutely new to a leadership position — both parties in both Houses. But I think the Republicans were hoping they could sort of see everything Daschle did through the prism of his presidential ambitions. That is no longer available to them.

JIM LEHRER: Specific quickly before we go — President Bush’s decision to re-nominate some judges who had been killed when the Democrats — who had been — their nominations were killed when the Democrats who had been — their nominations where the Democrats were in charge of the Senate. How do you read that? What’s going on?

DAVID BROOKS: I thought it was principle. I thought it was good politically because he campaigned, especially Charles Pickering from Mississippi. And I thought it was principle.

JIM LEHRER: It was a district judge who the president wants elevated to circuit court judge.

DAVID BROOKS: After he was killed or his nomination was killed, a lot of African Americans from Mississippi came up and testified on his behalf, said he was a good man, very good on civil rights, good on desegregating the schools and he’s getting railroaded here by some interest groups, who are tarring him as a racist. And I thought there was someone who deserved a fairer and better hearing and we’re about to have a big donnybrook about that. The difference between Trent Lott and Pickering is, as somebody wrote today, the more you look into Pickering the better he looks; the more you look into Lott, the worse he looks.

MARK SHIELDS: I was surprised, Jim. To me, what the president did this week on both taxes and his judicial appointments was to say to the two bases of his party, to the anti-tax conservatives, who are a very important constituency, and to the social and cultural conservatives, I’m with you. The president is a lot more popular than he was two years ago. His party is not. He has not broadened his party. These were two real base sweeteners going back to Priscilla Owen of Texas and Charles Pickering. And I think what he has done is guarantee nobody outside of Washington, D.C. knows Charles Pickering or Priscilla Owen, but the two constituencies of either party care deeply about this. And that’s–

JIM LEHRER: Going on to have a big fight.

MARK SHIELDS: There will be a big fight. It will probably enable other conservative nominees to get by without a fight and to be confirmed.

DAVID BROOKS: Absolutely agree with that. The other thing he did this week was he became a giant on domestic policy as well as foreign.

JIM LEHRER: OK, we have to go. Thank you both.