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Military Budget Changes, Same-sex Marriage Top Week’s News

April 10, 2009 at 6:35 PM EST
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Columnist Mark Shields and editor Rich Lowry analyze the week's political news, including Defense Secretary Robert Gates' military budget priorities and two more states allowing same-sex couples to marry.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: And to the analysis of Shields and Lowry. That’s syndicated columnist Mark Shields and National Review editor Rich Lowry. David Brooks is off.

Gentlemen, it’s good to see you both.

RICH LOWRY, Editor, National Review: Good to see you, Judy.

MARK SHIELDS, Syndicated Columnist: Good to see you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Mark, we just watched that report from Paul Solman. Is there a mood in Washington? Is there the will to do something about this extra money that these executives got?

MARK SHIELDS: I think that the move by executives on Wall Street to address the compensation problem and to say, “Wait a minute, we were overpaid,” is in anticipation — in hoping to head off congressional action.

I think there’s certainly a will in the country, there’s a ferment in the country, anyway — whether that translates into a will — but about the outlandish salaries and the disproportionate wealth that was concentrated in the financial sector.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Can the financial community head this off?

RICH LOWRY: Well, we’ll see. I mean, one of the ironies here is actually the Obama administration is looking for ways around the compensation restrictions that were passed by Congress already that are supposed to go along with TARP funds.

And there’s just a tension here, because the government, on the one hand, it wants firms to take this money, because it thinks it’s helpful to the broader economy.

On the other hand, you don’t want to be funding what is perceived as excess. And this is just another reason why TARP, I think justly, has become such an object of populist rage both on the right and on the left. It was sold under false pretenses, and almost immediately it just became a slush fund for the executive to use in whatever manner it desired.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Let me ask you another…

MARK SHIELDS: I agree. I agree with that. Yes, I mean, there’s minimal public support for TARP.

President's influence on economy

Mark Shields
Syndicated Columnist
So I think that the president is walking a very sort of thin line. He's trying to encourage people, give them a sense of optimism, but no way proclaiming victory.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We heard Margaret talking earlier with two guests about, you know, where the economy is, Mark. The president today talking glimmers of hope out there. Yesterday he was encouraging homeowners to refinance their mortgages. The rates are low. Can this kind of jawboning help?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I think it helps to the extent that optimism helps, helps any time economic activity, when people are more confident about the future.

But he was quite measured, was the president. There was no -- and nuanced. There was no "mission accomplished" banners. There was no announcement that, as Sen. McCain made fatally during the month of September, that the fundamentals of the economy are sound and strong, in a week that probably doomed his campaign.

So I think that the president is walking a very sort of thin line. He's trying to encourage people, give them a sense of optimism, but no way proclaiming victory.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, maybe jawboning is too strong a word.

RICH LOWRY: Yes, well, this isn't anything new, though. The president's rhetorical tone shifted almost immediately after the stimulus passed, because they wanted to augment the sense of crisis to get that thing through.

And I'm not a big fan of the line of argument the president can talk up or talk down the economy much. I think it has to do with fundamental conditions in the economy. And what Obama's more optimistic take has going for it is now there are some signs of -- I think Larry Summers used the word "green sprouts" in the economy.

You know, car sales are a little bit up. There are some signs of consumer demand coming back a little bit.

So it may be that Milton Friedman's analogy talked about the economy being a plucked string. If you pull it down quickly enough, it's going to bounce back, and perhaps that's happening now. The big question mark is just how big a hole the banks still have in their balance sheets.

MARK SHIELDS: I do think that history would record, though, that both Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan did inspire a sense of optimism and confidence in the country at a time of dire economic straits, certainly more serious in the Roosevelt era.

New defense budget priorities

Rich Lowry
National Review
I think the risk, though, is future wars may not be wars of counterinsurgency. You can imagine, as they call it in the jargon, a pure competitor rising up in the form of China, which is pursuing a very aggressive military modernization.

JUDY WOODRUFF: A few more things happened this week I want to ask you both about.

MARK SHIELDS: Sure.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Rich, Defense Secretary Robert Gates rolled out the Gates budget for the Pentagon this week. We don't know the final numbers, but we know he's trying to do away with some major weapons programs, instituting some new ones. How much success is he likely to have?

RICH LOWRY: Well, the history of this, when you go after these weapon systems that might not make so much sense, piecemeal, they just -- it gets shot down in Congress, so they're hoping a broader push, more of it will get through.

My problem with the vision here -- I think Gates is an extremely responsible public servants -- servant -- a servant, excuse me. And within the constraints he's under, I think the choices he's making make sense.

I'm not sure the constraints make sense. In the context of defense budgets in the recent past, and certainly in the context of the rest of what the federal government doing, this is an austerity budget at a time we're still in Iraq, at a time we're escalating in Afghanistan and are probably going to do so for years to come. I think it's a mistake to be squeezing.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You think he's cutting too much?

RICH LOWRY: I do.

MARK SHIELDS: I don't. And we just had the Government Accountability Office this week report 47 weapon systems, $296 billion in cost overruns. I mean, to think that there isn't trimming to be done here.

And Secretary Gates -- demonstrated, I thought, superbly in his interview on the show with you this week -- is the perfect person to do this. I mean, just think of the advantage he brings to it. He not only was President George Bush's secretary of defense, having served in all these different administrations. He's got enormous respect. He's got enormous trust. He's not seen as a partisan on either side of the aisle.

And a new secretary trying to do this, Judy, would be almost impossible. He wouldn't have the relations with Congress. He's trusted. He's admired. I think he makes a strong case.

And it's based on a predicate which is that the war that we're fighting is not the war of big weapons. It's not going to be a World War II war. It's a counterinsurgency war. And that's why the weapon systems that he's recommending, I think, do make sense.

RICH LOWRY: I agree with that. And this is much preferable to the Rumsfeld approach, which was to ignore the current war in pursuit of some vision of transformation.

I think the risk, though, is future wars may not be wars of counterinsurgency. You can imagine, as they call it in the jargon, a pure competitor rising up in the form of China, which is pursuing a very aggressive military modernization. You have the threat of ballistic missiles coming on. So I would really prefer to do both.

MARK SHIELDS: We spend more on defense than the next 48 countries in the world combined, combined. We are not starving the Pentagon.

Sea change in gay rights

Mark Shields
Syndicated Columnist
There is no question that we're seeing a sea change in attitudes in the country just over the last generation...barely 25 years ago, a 2 to 1 majority of people in America thought gay and homosexual teachers should not be allowed to teach.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Very different subject, developments in three different geographic jurisdictions, the state of Iowa, the state of Vermont, and here in the district -- near us in the District of Columbia. Same-sex marriage proved -- or pushed in that direction.

Rich, is this something -- what does this tell us about where the country is on this issue?

RICH LOWRY: Well, what's so momentous about Vermont, this is the first time it's been entirely a small-d democratic process through which advocates of gay marriage have actually instituted gay marriage.

So I think what we're going to see is a patchwork approach. And in those states like in Iowa, where you can have the judiciary impose gay marriage -- and it's very hard to go to the public for a constitutional amendment to overturn it -- you're going to see gay marriage in a state like that.

In the more socially liberal states, Vermont -- perhaps New Hampshire will be coming online, Massachusetts we already have -- you will have gay marriage.

But in the states where it's very easy for the public to vote directly on the question in these state constitutional amendments, you're not going to see gay marriage. And so far that's been 30 states. So this is going to be long, drawn-out, trench warfare, politically and legally.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Still, it's progress for those who support gay marriage.

MARK SHIELDS: There is no question that we're seeing a sea change in attitudes in the country just over the last generation, Judy. I mean, just a majority -- barely 25 years ago, a 2 to 1 majority of people in America thought gay and homosexual teachers should not be allowed to teach, I mean, that school boards could fire them at will.

This is really a sea change. And where it is, you can see it, is chronologically. The younger voters are more accepting, more tolerant, more welcoming of same-sex marriage. Older voters are more resistant.

Rich is right that one state did pass it -- Arizona passed it in a referendum in 2006 -- and then overturned it in 2008. But the reality is that the tide is moving in the direction of same-sex.

And what stops the opposition is there's no prominent figure of political power or visibility in Washington to lead the fight against it. I mean, there's no Tom DeLay in office. There's no Bill Frist in the Senate, even.

I mean, nobody seems to have the appetite to make this an issue, because at a time when the economy is as bad as it is and in crisis, the economy becomes the only issue and the others become almost diversions.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Do you agree with that?

RICH LOWRY: Well, I don't know. I don't see a huge tide sweeping the country. I mean, we just -- remember, in November, California passed a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, you know, a state where you have L.A. and San Francisco and Silicon Valley.

So, as I say, it's going to be a patchwork. And that's what we're going to live with for a while.

Gun laws still politically risky

Rich Lowry
National Review
I don't think you'll see anything major. I just think the politics of this issue so fundamentally shifted over the last five, seven, 10 years, where Democrats decided gun control was a loser.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Something else I want to ask both of you. We've seen a spate of mass shootings over the last week or so. Binghamton, New York, but then there have been several others and almost been every single day.

MARK SHIELDS: Alabama.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Are we going to see any change, Rich, in gun laws, gun control as a result of this?

RICH LOWRY: I don't think you'll see anything major. I just think the politics of this issue so fundamentally shifted over the last five, seven, 10 years, where Democrats decided gun control was a loser.

And the foremost example of that is Barack Obama, you know, pretty liberal guy, Democratic nominee, Democratic president, endorsing basically an individual right to bear arms under the Constitution.

And I think also, as a policy matter, it's hard to see what specific change you could make that would prevent these sort of events, short of banning and confiscating all guns, which is obviously implausible.

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I do think there's been a change. I think Rich is absolutely right there. But, Judy, we did, in 1994 in this country -- the Clinton administration, Congress -- vote to ban 19 types of assault weapons, automatic weapons, ones that Barry Goldwater had said there was absolutely no reason, no justification for their even being produced. They are not used for hunting.

Take -- take in the District of Columbia -- I'm sorry, are we running...

JUDY WOODRUFF: We're almost out.

MARK SHIELDS: No, but my point is that President Obama is on record clearly and unequivocally as saying he favors a permanent ban on assault weapons. That assault weapon ban was seen by Democrats in 1994 for the reason -- one of the reasons they lost the Congress.

And Rich is right. There is a timidity as far as the National Rifle Association. "Guns don't kill people, peanut butter does." I mean, that's their argument at this point.

I mean, the whole thing is a case of this town needs a vertebrae transplant. It needs spine, and it needs nerve on this issue.

Republicans seek their approbation; Democrats want to avoid their wrath. And it's that simple.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Tough subject. We thank you both.

MARK SHIELDS: Thank you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Mark Shields, Rich Lowry...

RICH LOWRY: Thanks, Judy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: ... appreciate it.