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Shields and Brooks Mull Stimulus Debate, Obama’s Next Policy Steps

February 6, 2009 at 6:40 PM EDT
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Columnists Mark Shields and David Brooks discuss the tough debate on Capitol Hill over the stimulus bill, the tax trouble that ended Tom Daschle's Cabinet nomination and how President Obama is faring so far.
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JIM LEHRER: And finally tonight, Judy Woodruff talks to Shields and Brooks.

JUDY WOODRUFF: That is syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks.

Gentlemen, it’s good to see both of you. We are getting reports late this afternoon, early this evening that they may have reached a deal on Capitol Hill, the economic stimulus. The Democrats are saying they seem to be moving, David, toward agreement. Why has this been so hard for this popular new president?

DAVID BROOKS, Columnist, New York Times: Child is father to the man. It started out, I think, in a bad place. Basically, the Obama administration gave a few principles, sent it out to the Congress, and the congressional chairmen basically took it over and created a bill which combined the short-term stimulus with long-term spending programs.

And the resulting bill, which was huge and sprawling, was something liberals could love, all conservatives hated, and moderates were extremely uneasy about. So what happened this week was you had a group of moderates — 18 to 20, holed up in the Dirksen building, 15 Democrats, 5 Republicans unhappy with the bill, but not wanting to be against it.

And those centrists were taking stuff out, yesterday, a lot of education bills. That made the liberals unhappy. They wanted that education money back in.

So it was a tension between the center and the left, basically, to try to find the right size. But the core problem was they created a bill so far left the center really wanted changes in it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How do you read this, Mark?

MARK SHIELDS, Syndicated Columnist: I disagree with David. Ninety percent of what’s in the bill coming out of the House was Barack Obama. I mean, it wasn’t some leftist plot that was foisted upon them by these barons on Capitol Hill.

I think there’s a couple of things that contribute to where we are on this uncertain terrain. First of all, Judy, nobody I know is absolutely certain about what has to be done. They know we have to increase demand in the economy, but nobody is absolutely sure.

We’ve never been here before. We’ve never been at this place in a globalized economy. Paul Solman last week did a piece about the fact that China was no longer importing waste paper from the United States because China was no longer using boxes to sell goods to the United States. I mean, the whole thing is of a piece.

The second thing that contributes to it is we’re at the end of a conservative era. It’s over. And people aren’t sure where we go.

I mean, you see it in the story this week of the SEC, and Bernie Madoff, the failure there, the failure of the Food and Drug Administration. The era of lax government regulations, let the market — and take regulation, and details, and red tape away from business, that’s over. And the era of tax cuts is over.

So I think we’re kind of in that uncharted territory. And I think that’s what’s contributed to it as much as anything.

$150 billion cut from bill

Mark Shields
Syndicated Columnist
The Republicans, I think, are in an enormously difficult political situation. They don't want to stop this. They don't want to stop this new president.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But if the conservative era is over, David, and if the era of tax cuts is over, there are going to be some tax cuts we think in this stimulus plan. And why are the conservatives still giving the president fits?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I think, again, the main conservative argument is, "We want a stimulus." If it had been just a payroll tax holiday, you would have had 80, 90 votes, which is targeted toward the lower middle class, as well as infrastructure and other things.

But the bill was structured in such a way as they added on all these other spending programs. And it wasn't just the honeybee subsidies. It was the entitlement spending, education, a lot of health care money that was thrown in there. Good ideas, maybe, but a lot of people said, "Not in a stimulus package."

So we had this logjam. And when a look at the deal they are headed toward, what they've apparently done is reduced the budget, the total cost of the Senate bill, from $937-odd-billion to $780 billion. That's a huge reduction. We don't know what that reduction consists of.

But that reduction of $150-odd-billion is a lot more than the moderates were talking about yesterday. And, really, what they had over the past 24 hours is they had the president and the leadership over a barrel, because he needed these people to get to 60 votes. And it looks like superficially they got some concessions.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, Mark...

MARK SHIELDS: First of all, I do think that you can make a strong case that education spending, Head Start spending, Pell Grants are very stimulative to the economy.

And I think the aid to states, which is one of the biggest sticking points, which -- states are cash-strapped at this point, so any aid that goes to them is going to save the states from, A, increasing taxes, or cutting services and personnel.

But I do think, Judy, that we are right now in a position where the Republicans, I think, are in an enormously difficult political situation. They don't want to stop this. They don't want to stop this new president.

I mean, the president this week had to come back from where he had been and return to his campaign mode, which was that, yes, I promised to change the tone in Washington, but more important than changing the tone even is changing the direction of the country.

That's what the country voted for three months ago. And that just staying where we were, with tax cuts and the old policies, were obviously not sufficient.

President changes tactics

David Brooks
New York Times Columnist
About a third of economists that I was talking to really hate this bill. They think it will cause inflation, really screw up our long-term fiscal situation. Republicans are arguing out of principle, I think.

JUDY WOODRUFF: He has changed his tactics, David. He started out reaching out to Republicans and then, in the last two days, he's almost seemed impatient. As David Axelrod told Jim a few minutes ago, time has come to fish or cut bait.

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I think that's because of the substance of the bill. It was a bill that no Republican could support and a lot of moderates have trouble with.

If President Bush had come out and supported overturning Roe v. Wade right off the bat, no liberals could have supported him. That would have killed bipartisanship. So I think it was that substance that primarily cut the bill.

And the problem is, if you get too tough with people now, what -- stimulus is the easy thing. We've got TARP, which Paul was talking about. We've got a housing bill. Those are actually going to be much harder. And if he creates a partisan rift now, it's going to be much harder to pass those things later down the road.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, what about Mark's point that the Republicans are taking a risk here by opposing?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, A, I think, as a matter of principle, they don't believe the stimulus as constituted will work, so it's just a matter of principle. Second, the public is increasingly disenchanted with the way this bill is designed.

Having said that, something has to pass. Most Americans or the large majority of Americans want something to pass. So if nothing passes, then the recriminations will fall especially hard on the Republicans, but on everybody.

MARK SHIELDS: I think, when it goes to 7.6 percent unemployment, I think you run a risk. I mean, ideally for the Republicans, in a tactical sense, is to vote against it and have it pass. Then, two years from now, if it doesn't work out, they can say, "We stood at the ramparts against it. We couldn't stop it."

If it does work out, they could say, "We were trying to improve it." But I don't think the Republicans want to be in the position of stopping it.

DAVID BROOKS: I would just say, this is not a tactical decision. About a third of economists that I was talking to really hate this bill. They think it will cause inflation, really screw up our long-term fiscal situation. Republicans are arguing out of principle, I think. They don't need to think about practice.

The second thing I'll say -- and I think this came out in the Axelrod interview, as well -- is, when you spend time on Capitol Hill, the name Barack Obama and the White House does not come up as much as you think it does. The senators are dealing this amongst themselves.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Why do you think that is?

DAVID BROOKS: I'm struck by that. We had a couple weeks ago this tremendous inauguration and yet -- whether you're talking about the majority leader, the moderates or the conservatives, they're doing their own deals, but they're not really dictated by the White House. And that just could be the Constitution which allows the Congress a lot of leeway in this stuff.

MARK SHIELDS: I think the president, quite honestly, did remove himself, and I think he was taken off-stride by the Daschle flap. I think he has returned to the point of leading this debate and leading this discussion.

As far as the concern -- and, really, it's a remarkable transformation -- it is a battlefield conversion to this concern about fiscal responsibility. The Republicans have sat there and watched the national debt double in the last eight years, double, from a $236 billion surplus they inherited from Bill Clinton to fighting a war on tax cuts, with tax cuts, and just turning this over to Obama. Obama inherited a trillion-dollar deficit.

Nominees' tax controversies

Mark Shields
Syndicated Columnist
Nobody is indispensable, obviously. But Tom Daschle was the closest thing to indispensable Barack Obama had.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But you brought up Tom Daschle, Mark. You said that affected the president's ability to get something done. How much has he been...

MARK SHIELDS: Oh, I think the Daschle thing hurt him. I mean, I don't think there's any question about it.

Tom Daschle -- Charles de Gaulle said, "The cemeteries of the world are full of indispensable men." And nobody is indispensable, obviously. But Tom Daschle was the closest thing to indispensable Barack Obama had.

He was an establishment figure who early endorsed him. He understood the political process well. He understood the players well. He cared deeply about health insurance, which Obama is committed to. And he was ideally suited. He knew the failures that had been made and the mistakes that had been made in '93.

And so, in this respect, there was nobody in the entire administration who was a better fit. He had a personal relationship with the president and was well liked on Capitol Hill. So, I mean, to lose him -- and he didn't want to lose him, and so he resisted the reality. But once Nancy Killefer went on a $900...

JUDY WOODRUFF: This was the woman who had been the chief procurement officer in the White House.

MARK SHIELDS: That's right...

JUDY WOODRUFF: She stepped down.

MARK SHIELDS: ... the $900 question of her taxes, you could not keep the two men -- Timothy Geithner for $48,000 and Tom Daschle for $130,000 unpaid taxes -- and say, "Oh, but we're getting rid of her for a $900 tax bill."

JUDY WOODRUFF: How much of a loss is this?

DAVID BROOKS: I think it's a big loss.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And how much does it hurt him?

DAVID BROOKS: I agree with what Mark said. I just personally think it's just craziness.

The problem in Washington is not that we have too many corrupt people. The problem is we don't have enough people who know how to pass legislation. And Tom Daschle does know how to pass legislation. He could have really helped pass a health care bill.

And to lose him, it's just not worth it. It's not worth it long term. Now, they're talking about people who are replacements, very good people, Ron Wyden, a senator, and Governor Bredesen from Tennessee. They're good people, but they don't have the unique set of skills Tom Daschle had.

And the problem was that Obama ran on a campaign of virgin birth, of no lobbyists, no Washington, and that set the standard way too high.

Learning from mistakes

David Brooks
New York Times Columnist
The good thing about Obama -- he's had a bad week, but he's -- he learns, and he will learn from this week.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But you think that they should have stuck with him and...

DAVID BROOKS: Well, the whole culture has changed. It's very intolerant of this sort of activity.

MARK SHIELDS: It was a great applause line to say, "No lobbyists." I think lobbyists are important to the process. I mean, not all lobbyists are stealing from widows and orphans. They are people who understand and care deeply about the process.

I think President Obama is right in setting a rule that, once you come into the administration, as long as the administration is in power and you go out, you cannot lobby. I mean, that's a tougher rule than we've ever had in Washington.

I'd ideally like to have somebody with experience and knowledge in the administration and in any administration.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Very quickly, finally, the president said, "I screwed up." He said it several times. Was that the smart thing to do?

MARK SHIELDS: Sure. I mean, Americans welcome -- I mean, I wish he hadn't said, "I screwed up." I mean, it's not the most elegant phrasing in the world. Americans...

JUDY WOODRUFF: But people get what that means.

MARK SHIELDS: They do. But, I mean -- I agree. It wasn't being obtuse. But Americans do respect that.

I mean, we had a president, George Bush, who said he made mistakes, but he had a good heart. We had Bill Clinton who couldn't admit mistakes. Ronald Reagan did on the Iran-Contra, and it probably saved the second term of his presidency.

DAVID BROOKS: "Screw-ups were made" is the passive version of this.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes, that's right.

DAVID BROOKS: No, the good thing about Obama -- he's had a bad week, but he's -- he learns, and he will learn from this week.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right. Well, we always learn from the two of you.

David Brooks, Mark Shields, thank you both. Have a good weekend.