Shields and Brooks Discuss the Week’s Events
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JIM LEHRER: And to the analysis of Shields and Brooks: Syndicated columnist Mark Shields, New York Times columnist David Brooks. Welcome back, David. How would you describe the state of play politically on Social Security as we speak?
DAVID BROOKS: Well, there is a great deal of caution. And the White House had plans of trying to get Social Security moving in May or maybe even sooner. And that clearly is not going to happen. Now there are just a bunch of plans out there –
JIM LEHRER: Moving meaning there had been some plan and some legislation and whatever?
DAVID BROOKS: Right. And that’s not going to happen. If you talk to members of the Senate, Republicans, they say, listen, this is a very successful, a very popular program. If we’re going to touch this program, we’ve got to move very, very slowly, very cautiously. That’s what we’re hearing from constituents. We can’t get too far out in front of the American people. I think the sense they have is most people know there is a problem. They’re nervous about solutions; they’re nervous about debt. Some places are nervous about private accounts, some places not, sort of unformed. So we’re really in a long, slow process.
JIM LEHRER: More nervous, Mark, about the solutions than they are the problem, or how would you read it at this point?
MARK SHIELDS: More nervous about the solution, Jim. There is no sign of the problem in the current world. I mean, we heard David Walker with Ray talk about the long-term solvency, but you look at it this way, Bill Thomas, the Republican chairman of the Ways and Means Committee points out that the program was created in 1935; 70 years before 1935 was the end of the Civil War. And you talk about the changes in that intervening 70 years from 1865. Now here we are 70 years later. Isn’t there a need to change? Intellectually certainly that makes a lot of sense. There have been enormous changes demographically, economically, structurally in the country.
JIM LEHRER: And more still to come.
MARK SHIELDS: More still to come, but it’s never missed a pay day. I think the reality that’s hitting Republicans, especially in states like Pennsylvania, in the Northeast and in blue collar Republican districts is that Social Security is not only popular, it’s indispensable. It is the hallmark. These are people who might agree very much with the Republican member of Congress on same-sex marriage, on gun control, on social issues, but, hey, don’t talk about Social Security because, Jim, one out of two people on Social Security without it would be living in poverty in this country.
DAVID BROOKS: I agree with that. I think I have noticed in talking to members of Congress in particular that if they’re from a part of the country that’s growing, Nevada, Arizona, places where people are prospering, they’re kind of enthusiastic about personal accounts because they’ are sort of comfortable with the market. You go to a lot of places where they’re not prospering as much, especially the Midwest, central Pennsylvania, they’re much more nervous about markets, much more nervous about personal accounts. And I think what people are finding is there are people in think tanks here who really want to change the program. They’ve wanted to do that for decades and decades. That’s think tanks here. Most people, as Mark said, like the program. And the only reason they feel they need the change is because we have to change. And so that’s a very different approach than, you know, all the envelopes from the Cato Institute.
MARK SHIELDS: There is a real political reality here. The president understands, everybody understands something this big you’re not going to do it just Republican votes. Not only are there not enough Republicans to do it, but you have to…
JIM LEHRER: It’s too universal a program?
MARK SHIELDS: It really. Is it’s just such an enormous change; they haven’t been able to enlist a Democrat. I mean, there isn’t a Democrat who’s gone public. And, Jim, too many of them were burned by the earlier experience of the tax cut in 20001. They backed the president in 2001, nine of them. The election comes in 2002 and the White House and Karl Rove and the entire Republican machine went tooth and toenail against Max Cleland to beat him with support of the tax cut.
JIM LEHRER: You’re talking about nine Democratic senators –
MARK SHIELDS: That’s right, they went against Mary Landrieu in Louisiana. She lived to survive it, but I can tell you, I haven’t seen Mary Landrieu lining up to be the co-sponsor of Social Security in the Senate.
JIM LEHRER: David, the president’s Europe trip. Generally speaking, he went over there to kind of start the healing process, particularly with the French and the Germans. How did he do?
DAVID BROOKS: He did well I thought. I thought all along the way they had good events. I think everybody has decided, let’s turn the page. I was over the week before with a lot of the same people that he saw, and there was a great sense of, okay, we’ve had our disagreements, you’re chastened because you’ve messed up a lot of things in Iraq, we’re a little chastened because the Iraqi elections went so well and they do mean a lot. So we’re going to move on. For the American diplomats in Europe, they’ve had a horrible two years. And they kept saying, this is the best period we’ve had in three years, a real effort to make some healing.
So I thought the president did well with Putin, well at all the stops. And I think the central lesson I draw from the week is that this agenda of democratization is really now the central global agenda, both in Russia, in Beirut, in Lebanon, in Iran as we just saw, this agenda that the president’s been pushing is sort of dominating discussion everywhere you go on this trip and elsewhere.
JIM LEHRER: Do you agree, Mark?
MARK SHIELDS: I agree in part. I think what this trip showed is that campaigns and elections both do matter. They do have consequences. The election mattered. George Bush won a second term. All of a sudden it became important to the Europeans. He’s going to be there for another four years. We better…
JIM LEHRER: Let’s get along with this guy?
MARK SHIELDS: Let’s get along; let’s lower the level of antagonism and all the rest of it. Campaigns matter because John Kerry made the case over and over, which the White House and Bush campaign understandably refused to acknowledge was true, that the United States had been isolated under Bush and that George Bush’s idea of leadership was I lead, you follow. So much of the antagonism in Europe was personal, against the United States was personal.
JIM LEHRER: Personal against President Bush?
MARK SHIELDS: Against President Bush. I think that this strip went a long way toward diminishing that. I think that there was an understanding that it is more important, the president’s language was far more olive branchy, I guess, if you can use that adjective, in talks about the great alliance and what we had to do and nothing could divide us. So I think in that sense it was awfully important.
JIM LEHRER: Do you think, David, that this is real, I mean, in other words, that is not just gesture, this is not just rhetoric, that the president really has signed on to the idea, whether he got it from John Kerry or wherever he got it, that there is a real problem and it has to be solved with our old allies?
DAVID BROOKS: The level of annoyance was a problem. Now, does that mean we’ve healed our riffs with Europe; no. When you ask Europeans about terrorism, they tend to talk that the root cause of terrorism is poverty. Well, Bush talks that the root cause of terrorism is lack of freedom. That’s just a fundamentally different definition. And that’s still there. When we talk about making peace around the world, we talk about 1776, about the series of national democratic revolutions; they talk about 1992, setting up a global architecture so countries can live in peace. Two very different value systems, but there are some common projects we could agree on. I would say the atmospherics are much better. Do we agree on lifting the Chinese arms embargo, which the Europeans want to do? No. Do we agree on Iran, maybe a little closer. Do we agree on how to deal with Russia; maybe a little closer but not much, so the atmospherics are improved, and that’s significant. But, you know, it’s not like we’re ever going to be back to the Cold War days of the close alliance.
JIM LEHRER: Speaking of Russia, Mark, did the president follow up, do you think, effectively on his state of the union remarks about democracy for everybody and we’re going the call hands? Did he call Putin’s hand properly in your opinion?
MARK SHIELDS: Jim, the categorical imperative rhetorically of the state of the union, you know, is going to be — it’s always going to be – the president’s actions are going to be measured against it in the real world. And those who stand with us on this great divide of liberty versus not liberty and all the rest of it, the president was forced to compromise, confront reality, Iran being an example. I mean, just matter of weeks ago, the United States was quite dismissive of any European attempt to negotiate incentives –
JIM LEHRER: Carrots –
MARK SHIELDS: — Carrots with Iran. We had the vice president, in spite of David’s suggestion that it was silly season for Dick Cheney, go on national television and talk about the United States being perhaps unable to stop Israel from attacking the nuclear installations in Iran. I mean, pretty serious talk. That was changed. With Putin, sort of a public lecture on democracy, its value, its virtues — I thought Putin was uncomfortable, but it certainly is not the bright bold lines that we saw in the inaugural address, and nor can it be in the real world.
JIM LEHRER: Or should it be? Do you think?
MARK SHIELDS: I don’t think it can be. I really don’t. It’s certainly an admirable goal but it’s not a realistic route.
JIM LEHRER: What do you think about how he handled Putin?
DAVID BROOKS: I think he handled him well. They knew what was going to happen when he made the speech. He said, you said total freedom and you weren’t calling for total freedom.
JIM LEHRER: They meaning the administration
DAVID BROOKS: They set down that marker so it would be an issue when they went abroad.
JIM LEHRER: So everybody would know he would say it?
DAVID BROOKS: So he would be measured by the standard. They knew they would come up short in moist of the time because real life you can’t be 100 percent pure. When it came to Putin, I thought he was much better than he has been. It was uncomfortable for Putin. You looked at the issues that came up and the question — it was about the free press, arresting opposition leaders, dominating elections. That’s what we want the subject to be about. And that’s what I thought Bush did quite a good job. He could have been a little tougher in some cases, but I thought he straddled the line well.
JIM LEHRER: What about Mark’s point about Iran that he’s been forced to compromise with Europe on that? Do you agree?
DAVID BROOKS: Well, I think rhetorically, I think they’re willing to let the Europeans incentive-based approach have its day. Do they have high expectations for it; no. They know that their own proposals are not really going to be successful either; our ideas that we take to the U.N. and maybe have sanctions, but some day the U.N. is going to veto any sanctions regime. So we have a European avenue that doesn’t lead to success, an American avenue that probably won’t lead to success. What do we do? I do think the one significant thing that happened this week is there has been so much talk about some imminent invasion of Iran by the United States. And I thought Bush well and correctly shot down that whole thing.
JIM LEHRER: Take what David said and put it in what Elizabeth Farnsworth had in her report, where these reformers were saying, hey, this is okay, but don’t help us too much, we can handle this on our own and we’ve got enough chaos, so these don’t add to it. What do you think of that?
MARK SHIELDS: Well, I think Iran, Jim, is so much more important than Iraq and always has been. I think it’s a far more imposing and important nation. It’s not only in its history, its tradition, but its potential and capacity. I think the United States, I mean, somebody suggested, you know, the focus was on typographical error, was on Iraq instead of Iran. That really is where, I think where the ball game is — in that whole region. So I think that the president, you know, we don’t have a policy. He said, in fairness to David, he said, we have no plan now to invade Iraq. Now, we didn’t have a plan to invade Iran – we had no plan to invade Iraq, it turned out ultimately.
JIM LEHRER: Okay. I have a plan, and it is now to say thank you both very much for your input tonight.