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Shields and Brooks Analyze Social Security, DNC

February 4, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT
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JIM LEHRER: And that brings us to the analysis of Shields and Brooks: syndicated columnist Mark Shields, New York Times columnist David Brooks.

So, David, how would you score the opening rounds of this fight over Social Security reform?

DAVID BROOKS: I guess the thing I would emphasize is this is the opening round. The Democrats are pretty united, they pretty much know what they think; they’re against personal accounts.

JIM LEHRER: Ben Cardin pretty speaks for them, does he not? I don’t mean he speaks for them but he represents the kind of the Democratic view. Do you agree with that Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: I do.

DAVID BROOKS: A tremendous party unity, they don’t have a counter proposal, but they’re against personal accounts. One thing I’m struck by talking to people this week is how much the Republicans are still at first base on this. That the members of the Congress many of them are still getting educated. So they’re not even thinking about plans, and then as far as the administration goes, they have this notion of permanent accounts, but then how to adjust the benefits, whether the plan should start in the House or Senate, whether the president should propose a plan or wait for Congress to do it. None of that has been decided and none of it is going to be decided for months. So this is going to be a long drawn out process, and the administration is basically, they’re sending the president on the road, they’re going to see what the country looks like in a few weeks and then they’ll start making some decisions.

JIM LEHRER: How does it look to you at this moment, early moment?

MARK SHIELDS: I agree with David’s assessment, Jim; I would just add this. I thought in that piece that Holman did, that the woman who said to Ben Cardin this is – there is so much of this talk now about I, how am I going to do what am I going to do and that Social Security was each generation looking out for the next generation.

What we have here really I think are two competing American narratives. The first is the great frontier story, myth if you would, of the rugged individualist, the guy who owes nothing to anybody, who by sheer guts, determination, self reliance, prevails over others and wears no man’s collar.

The other is the competing frontier narrative of the small town where people pool their talents, their time, their energy, resources to build a barn or to build a school, and Social Security certainly follows that second model. And that’s what it has been about. And I think what we’re talking about here is something, you know, rather profound, and I think that’s what we’re going to be wrestling with over the next, it’s going to be a great philosophical fight as well.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree with that?

DAVID BROOKS: I imagine the third frontier town called Crush Your Children, Wyoming, where one generation imposes incredible costs on the generation to come. And which is what the Social Security system is right now; it’s an over promised program where today’s seniors are getting benefits, and my generation, frankly will be getting benefits that will impose ruinous tax rates on my kids’ generation. And that’s just where the burdens are being thrust and that’s why this system and why the Medicare system aren’t sustainable. As for the idea that Ben Cardin mentioned of the safety net, I think we all agree on that; I think everybody says there has to be a safety net. I mean, the great success of Social Security was the reduction of poverty among the elderly, nobody disputes that.

JIM LEHRER: His figures are basically correct.

DAVID BROOKS: Right, nobody has gone back to Calvin Coolidge days. The idea is to make the program sustainable, because it is not sustainable right now. And so we’re having a discussion, and there is a philosophical dispute about how to fix it, but it’s not, I don’t think it’s rugged individualism on the one hand, or versus community on the other. It’s big government either way.

JIM LEHRER: Big government either way?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I mean, David says this onerous crushing burden. You know, the Center for Budget and Policy, one of the really respected think tanks in town, points out that if you simply suspend the president’s, don’t make permanent the president’s tax cuts for those earning over $350,000 a year, I mean, these aren’t people that are worried about paying the baby-sitter on Saturday night, you could take care of everything that’s involved in Social Security — the entire shortfall, okay.

So we’re not talking about a crushing burden. But there really is, in one case, I mean when the president says, hey, if you’re over 55, 55 or over, you don’t have to worry, you know, now that is an appeal to me. I mean I’m over 55, you know, and saying hey, you don’t have to worry, don’t worry about those folks who are 54 or 52 or 47.

JIM LEHRER: That’s a new approach you’re saying?

MARK SHIELDS: It’s a new approach. It’s the “me” nation versus the “we” nation.

JIM LEHRER: You don’t buy that –

DAVID BROOKS: That’s politics; there is an element of generational self interest, I guess, here. We saw the Democrats just in Kwame’s piece in front of a group of seniors and that is the group they’re talking to, saying worry about your Social Security, we saw the president with a younger woman and he is very much appealing to a younger generation that politically doesn’t think they’re going to see Social Security. So there is that generational element. I am not quite sure President Bush introduced selfishness into American public life.

JIM LEHRER: But you don’t think this is, you just disagree completely with Mark about whether he introduced it or not, that that’s what it’s going to come down to?

DAVID BROOKS: I’m not quite sure what you mean.

JIM LEHRER: Well, in other words, he’s saying if you’re over a certain age you have no problem, you have no problem at all, but if you’re blow that age you do have a problem.

DAVID BROOKS: Well, he wants to reassure people just as a matter of practicality, you can’t change the system to people who are ten or fifteen years away from retirement, that’s just a matter of practicality.

JIM LEHRER: Social Security aside, is there anything else lingering in the pundit air about the president’s state of the union address, two days later?

MARK SHIELDS: No. I mean the memorable moment was the two women, the Iraqi women whose father had been killed by Saddam’s intelligence force, and the mother of the Marine sergeant from Texas who had been killed; I mean, that’s the moment; and that was obviously the dramatic highlight and the emotional highlight. And in an interesting way, it does just underline the president has put all his hopes and all his political destiny Iraq, in the Iraq policy.

JIM LEHRER: Not Social Security?

MARK SHIELDS: No.

JIM LEHRER: You can talk about it and it’s going to dominate the dialogue, but it’s still Iraq, do you agree?

DAVID BROOKS: I think it’s both actually. I think, you know, one of the things about the guy is he’s a consequential president, that the word they use and that’s the word he believes in.

JIM LEHRER: Explain what that – how they use that word –

DAVID BROOKS: Well, there’s Walter Dean Burnham has this theory of you transformational presidents and non-transformational president. Franklin Roosevelt was a transformational president, somebody who didn’t just occupy the office but fundamentally changed the country. And Bush came in and said that’s the kind of president I’m going to be. It’s kind of remarkable that people achieve this office and don’t want to be that kind of president.

So he really has, this search was, you know, the pile driver speech. And one of the things I’ve noticed about him, we talked about the risky nature what was he does, but there’s been less talk recently about whether he’s a lightweight or not. Remember all that talk a couple years ago, now you may hate him or like him, but he is seems a more substantive figure because of the ambition that he –

JIM LEHRER: Do you buy that?

MARK SHIELDS: I do. I think that’s true. I think what was most interesting to me about the president’s approach in the post state of the union world, in Kwame’s piece in particular, is he’s following the model that he used in 2001 on his tax cuts. He’s going to the states that have senators, states that he carried in the presidential election, trying to convince Democratic senators to support him.

There’s a profound difference. I mean, not only is the country a lot more polarized than it was 2001, there’s a lot less trust between the president and the party, weapons of mass destruction, the 2002 campaign. But Jim, in 2001 he was Santa Claus, he was saying come on vote for this tax cut, it’s going to be good, it’s going to be pleasure; it’s painless. Now he’s saying, you know, vote for this, it’s cold showers and root canal. And even though it hasn’t been spelled out, it’s going to be benefit cuts. The president has ruled out any tax increases on Social Security, so I mean what he’s saying now is I’m asking you to vote for pain. That’s a lot more difficult.

DAVID BROOKS: Just to underline that, the president gives a speech on Wednesday, and on Thursday Jim McCrery, who is a member of the House Ways and Means Committee, Social Security Subcommittee chairman, very, very smart guy, very major player in this, comes out and says the outlines of the president’s plan are not going to fly. How often does that happen? And so what McCrery and Bill Thomas, the chairman of the Ways and Means Committee are saying, we’ve got to broaden this debate. And I think the administration is seeing that, and that’s why they’re so slow to come out with a plan, because you just got to throw a lot of things on the table.

JIM LEHRER: New subject. Barring some upset, Mark, it appears Howard Dean is going to be the new chairman of the national Democratic Party, new national chairman of the Democratic Party. For whom is that good news and for whom is that bad news?

MARK SHIELDS: Listen to the conservative commentators, I mean, they’re just salivating over it, they’re gleeful.

JIM LEHRER: Should they be?

MARK SHIELDS: Jim, I don’t think so. I think Howard Dean has not won this; it’s a comeback of sorts. I’d say two things about it. Howard Dean Democrats are still dying for somebody to stand up and say this is what it means to be a Democrat, Howard Dean does that very, very well. Everyone on the other side wants to concentrate on that one moment — and secondly I’d say about Howard Dean, the party chairs appear together on television. Now Ken Mehlman is an extremely effective –

JIM LEHRER: He’s the new chairman of the Republican Party.

MARK SHIELDS: And I got to tell you, I don’t care who you are, if you’ve got Howard Dean appearing against Ken Mehlman, I don’t think it hurts the Democrats in the least.

JIM LEHRER: How do you look at it?

DAVID BROOKS: I’m just taking off my bib from the saliva that’s been drooling down. The Republicans have been calling Karl Rove and saying, are you running both parties now? I think Dean comes with a pro and a con. The pro is the money. The Deaniacs are the fundraising base of the Democratic Party now. Al Gore raised $50 million from individuals in 2000. John Kerry raised $225 million from individuals; he raised $87 million just over the Internet. And that was sets off by Dean.

MARK SHIELDS: Howard Dean.

DAVID BROOKS: And so Dean represents what I think of as a university town fundraising base that is now the heart and soul of the Democratic Party, so they’ve got a lot of money, that’s good. The bad part is that it’s a university town liberal base. So to me this part of the party is a little more secular, and a little more strident than the people they need to win to get a majority.

JIM LEHRER: Just a few seconds.

MARK SHIELDS: Jim, a governor, a family doctor, balanced the budget, in a small state, I mean, you can play the caricature, you can play the reality, I mean, Howard Dean has a record. I don’t think he’s going to self-destruct, and I hate to disappoint Karl Rove –

DAVID BROOKS: He’s not as liberal as he appeared but he is still a secular strident person who is not a mainstream middle class Midwesterner.

MARK SHIELDS: — National Rifle Association endorsement –

JIM LEHRER: Thank you both. Thank you, thank you, thank you.