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Weekly Political Analysis of Mark Shields and David Brooks

January 17, 2003 at 12:00 AM EST
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JIM LEHRER: And finally tonight, the analysis of Shields and Brooks: Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and David Brooks of the Weekly Standard.

Mark, the president’s brief in the Michigan affirmative action case before the Supreme Court. How do you interpret the president’s position?

MARK SHIELDS: Ah….

JIM LEHRER: Based on the brief that was filed.

MARK SHIELDS: Well, the brief, to put it in context, it followed a very strong rhetorical statement. The president came out against quotas — against any discrimination, reverse or otherwise. And that was it for about 36 hours of news.

And gee, boy, he really, quite frankly, mollified, pleased his most conservative supporters who are most opposed to affirmative action/quotas as they see it.

Then the brief came in, and it was a lot more limited. It just involved the University of Michigan case. It did not involve repeal of the Bakki case; it did not constitute a frontal attack upon race as a factor at any time in admissions policies. So the president kind of played it both ways politically. I mean he-

JIM LEHRER: Did he get away with it?

MARK SHIELDS: He is not getting away with it because we are exposing it right here.

JIM LEHRER: Right. I’m sorry. I forgot that.

MARK SHIELDS: Jim, there are millions out there. He didn’t get away with it, Margaret. But I thought he had to do something. And it’s a tough issue for the president. It’s compassionate conservative. And the adjective and the noun were a little bit intentioned.

JIM LEHRER: Do you read it the same way?

DAVID BROOKS: Absolutely. The Wednesday speech – it was like the Henry IV speech for conservatives – we happy few. And then the Friday brief comes out and it was a clarion call with a kazoo.

It avoids the crucial issue, which is, diversity is such a prime value that we are going to discriminate or give people advantages solely on the basis of race there.

There were these two armies that wanted to debate that issue and he turned it into a technical issue of how are we going to get around the constitutionality of that and still get diversity.

JIM LEHRER: What is your reasoning as to why he did that?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, one of the things that struck me it was like the stem cell debate. Stem cell was abortion, this was affirmative action — two issues that have been around a long time — these two great armies wanting to wage a moral struggle with each other.And he turned them both in technical issues.

The stem cell – you’ll remember — was whether you can get good innovation from adult stem cells. And so we started debating over that technical issue.

In this case they’re saying we’ve got other ways that are not race-based to get at diversity. And there was a plan in Texas he mentioned and the plan in Florida.

And so now we are debating this technical issue about whether you can get to this result using these other means. So he is lowering the temperature, turning it technically and pleasing both sides or displeasing both sides.

JIM LEHRER: Sure. What do you make of this thing with Condoleezza Rice, the national security adviser, a big story in the Washington Post this morning saying she is the one, the person he listened to the most in formulating this policy — then today she issues a statement through the White House that says “it is appropriate to use race as one factor among others in achieving a diverse student body.”

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I think that story indicated, that story suggested she was on the conservative side -

JIM LEHRER: Exactly.

DAVID BROOKS: — and she said no, no, no. I was– I’m on both sides.

JIM LEHRER: How did you read it?

MARK SHIELDS: I read it exactly the same way. I thought the quote that jumped out at me was the one from that 2000 convention in Philadelphia when Colin Powell strode to the podium and said some in our party miss no opportunity to roundly and loudly condemn affirmative action that helped a few thousand black kids get an education but hardly a whimper is heard from them over affirmative action for lobbyists who load our federal tax codes with preferences for special interests; got an enormous applause in the nation, muted applause in the hall and a little bit of consternation among many Republican conservatives.

JIM LEHRER: Did the president have to make a statement on this? Did he have to take a position?

DAVID BROOKS: He didn’t legally have to but I think morally he had to. It was a big issue a lot of people care about, and I think the president cares about it, though I think he is torn about it.

To me what bothers me about this whole situation, the Michigan system I think is an appalling system; it’s discriminatory in the boldest, boldest sense. The problem is –

JIM LEHRER: Explain why you think that?

DAVID BROOKS: First of all, if you are the son of an African American surgeon, you get a 20-point advantage over the daughter of a Filipino video store manager; that’s not fair.

It’s also so race obsessed.If you happen to be one of the three prized racial groups in this or preferred racial groups, you get this 20-point advantage to get admission. But the essay part of your application is only one point.

So what it says is that race is 20 times more important than expressing ideas clearly. That’s out of whack. To me that’s wrong.

But the problem is Bush is leading us in an equally wrong direction it seems to me. He points to the Texas plan, which he was in charge of. What that Texas plan does is takes the top 10 percent of high school classes and it guarantees them college admissions.

What that means is the only thing that matters getting into the school is your grades, getting the 4.0 average; well, that turns students into these professional students who don’t develop a passion for any subject because they have to be correct in all subjects. They become conformist regurgitating what their teachers say to get A’s.

My central point is college admissions is an incredibly powerful social tool. We are debating it as if it is simply something that lawyers should decide based on a few civil rights categories. We should have much have a much bigger national debate over college admissions criteria.

JIM LEHRER: On the Texas thing, I want to go to Mark quickly, but on the Texas plan specifically, as you know, the argument is that there are an awfully lot of predominantly black and predominantly Hispanic schools and this is the reason that for the 10 percent, that automatically gets these kids into school.

DAVID BROOKS: It relies on segregation. It encourages segregation. It encourages parents to shop for bad schools.

JIM LEHRER: Mark.

MARK SHIELDS: It puts a parent in a terrible position. You put your child in a school where the child is going to flourish and learn, as David points out, or a place where they are going to be the valedictorian, a salutatorian level, that’s guaranteeing them admission to college.

The problem in Texas, the problem in California, is that under these– it’s top four percent in California, top ten percent in Texas is the elite universities, Berkeley, UCLA, University of Texas-Austin, there the minority enrollment has fallen off.

For the president, Jim, this is an enormous political difficulty. Matthew Dowd, the president’s pollster, points out in 2004 if George W. Bush gets the same percentage of white, Latino and African voters that he got in 2000, he will lose the election by three million votes because the demographic pool is changing and the demographic profile of the electorate is changing and more Latinos and African Americans will be voting and fewer whites.

So the president has to up his percentage of Latino vote from 32, 33 to 40 percent. And yesterday’s action, I think, probably is playing to the bases of the two parties. The Democratic Party core primary voters are the most uncritical advocates of affirmative action. And the Republican Party is most critical of any affirmative action. The Democrats praise diversity.

DAVID BROOKS: Conservatives can’t whether Bush did the right thing. A lot of them said they wish he hadn’t say anything.

JIM LEHRER: Just left it alone. Do you agree with David, Mark, that as the result of — you say these two cores on each end have kind of made it impossible to have an honest discussion of affirmative action in the center, the big center?

MARK SHIELDS: I think it makes it very difficult.

JIM LEHRER: Either for us or against us, wherever you are on either side.

DAVID BROOKS: A lot of people that have challenged it have been called racist.

MARK SHIELDS: And that’s a rhetorical bomb to drop in any conversation. At the same time, you have competing values, Jim.

I mean, Americans really do believe in diversity. And they think– and they know 200 years of no policies has produced very little diversity — and that there have been generations of people who should have had a chance who haven’t had a chance so….

JIM LEHRER: Then it boils down to. We want diversity but somebody who is a poor white kid does not want to be discriminated against by say a rich black kid who gets in just because he or she is black.

DAVID BROOKS: We’ve got to have a bigger argument about this. If you go to elite campuses, basically they’re dominated by upper middle class suburban kids and kids who went to private schools. You’ve got kids from the West Side of Manhattan and the East Side of Manhattan. That’s diversity at a lot of these elite schools.

And the suburban schools, 25 percent of Americans live in rural areas — they have token presences at a lot of elite universities. That’s why we need a bigger debate about admissions policies.

MARK SHIELDS: David is right in this, Jim. A lot of conservatives say we have to have meritocracy; you know, it ought to be on the basis of some objective standard.

And the president gets in a very awkward area this way because the president, himself, was not a spectacular student and he was what is known as a legacy; that is–

JIM LEHRER: Which is another form of affirmative action.

MARK SHIELDS: That’s right. His grandfather was on the board of trustees. His father had gone to Yale. He’s the only American who in the same academic year was rejected at the University of Texas Law School and accepted at Harvard Business School.

That is a subgroup that is so small it is infinitesimal. I think that’s another problem. John Edwards, the Democratic senator from North Carolina, who is running for president, who is the first in his family to go to college, has made as early as last November, one of his planks in the platform, the abolition of legacies in college admissions, which, again, I guess some would say is class warfare.

JIM LEHRER: With the presidential election, you mentioned John Edwards, with the presidential election ahead of us, is it likely we’ll have this big debate you think we should have?

DAVID BROOKS: No. I don’t think either party really wants to touch this in the general election. The other thing is it’s so outmoded.

You walk through Queens, there are Filipinos, there are Hmong, there are all these ethnic groups out there that are totally left out of this debate because there are only three ethnic groups that are mentioned in this quota system.

I happen to think the whole country is moving more in the Tiger Woods direction, that sort of person is left out of all this.

JIM LEHRER: The Democrats don’t want to have this debate either, do they?

MARK SHIELDS: One of the tragedies of Al Gore leaving the race was that the challenge then was with Gore leading that had to figure out how to get myself positioned against Gore.

Now with Gore out, it’s pander bear city. The Democrats will be pandering to each constituency. They start next Tuesday night at the NARAL, the National Abortion Rights Action League dinner. Each of them will get up there and express his undying and unyielding, unequivocal commitment. They will do the same thing to the NAACP; they do the same thing to La Raza.

So it’s going to be constituency coddling, the most unMcCain-like, all of them trying to get the McCain mantle and at the same time being the anti-McCain by just caressing all the erogenous zones for the body politic.

JIM LEHRER: And meanwhile President Bush has to do the same thing.

DAVID BROOKS: Yeah, but the Republican Party, we actually don’t have erogenous zones.

JIM LEHRER: He has to take care of his base too – that’s what he did with his speech — and then change it a little bit.

DAVID BROOKS: He didn’t please them but there are so many big issues to base him about that he doesn’t have to worry about the base.

JIM LEHRER: I have to worry about the time. I have to say good night to both of you, and it has been a real pleasure being with you once again.