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Brewing Court Battle, Specter’s Switch Top Week’s News

May 1, 2009 at 6:40 PM EDT
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Columnists Mark Shields and David Brooks mull the implications of Supreme Court Justice David Souter's retirement and Sen. Arlen Specter's decision to join the Democratic Party.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And to the analysis of Shields and Brooks. That’s syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks.

Thank you, gentlemen. It’s good to see you. There’s a lot to talk about.

David Souter, stepping down from the Supreme Court. David, political implications?

DAVID BROOKS, Columnist, New York Times: Well, long term, first, if he calls us the worst city in America, good riddance to him. I think it’s a great city. I’m very happy here.

I think, you know, the conventional thing to say is that it won’t be a big shift in the court because he’s a liberal vote and presumably there will be a liberal vote.

But a couple things to be said. First, the average Supreme Court justice now serves over 26 years, so Souter was a liberal vote for the next few years, but Obama has the chance to pick someone who will be a liberal vote for 26 years. So that’s just the long term; that’s what makes it a big deal.

And then the second question is, what kind of liberal vote is the next going to be? And a lot of people are saying it should be a liberal Scalia, someone who’s just hard-hitting, straightforward arguments.

But you could have more a liberal John Roberts, somebody who is more conciliatory, but maybe a better coalition-builder. So you’ve still got choices there. And then, as Marcia said earlier, the general conviction is, it’s probably going to be a woman.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Is that right? Is that what everybody thinks?

MARK SHIELDS, Syndicated Columnist: Yes, it’s not a chance to obviously remake the court philosophically, but it is a chance for the president to shore up the liberal wing of the court, as David put it. And I think that…

JUDY WOODRUFF: What do you mean “shore it up”?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I mean, in other words, that David Souter was chosen — when he was chosen by George Herbert Walker Bush, his chief of staff at the time was the former governor of New Hampshire, no particular intimate, but a political supporter of David Souter, John Sununu, who said, “This is a homerun for conservatives.”

I mean, you really don’t know what people are going to be. I mean, Dwight Eisenhower said the greatest mistake of his life was Earl Warren. Well, Bill Brennan was also — William Brennan was also an Eisenhower appointee.

So, I mean, when you start picking people, you think you are — you think you’re getting something, but you’re not absolutely sure. Whizzer White, Byron White, was John Kennedy’s choice for the Supreme Court and turned out to be the bane of many liberals, because he was pro-life.

So I would say this, that the chances of it being a woman are very strong, perhaps the first Latina, first Asian. And I think it’s a chance to see whether Barack Obama meant what he said during the campaign, which was I want someone whose life experiences allow them to show the empathy for the young teenage mother, for someone who’s poor, someone who’s disabled, someone who’s gay. I mean, I think empathy is going to be high on his list of qualifications.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And he repeated that today, David. What does it mean for the president? I mean, he talked about he’s going to consult Democrats and Republicans. What do we think?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, first of all, I hope empathy isn’t very high on his list. I mean, that’s not why we have a Supreme Court. Do you want a bunch of Dr. Spocks reading the Constitution and trying to interpret it? So I hope they don’t go by empathy. And the president sort of went on both sides of that.

For Obama, it’s a chance to make a statement of who he is and what sort of Democrat he is. And that’s where I think he’s more likely to pick a more John Roberts-y type of guy. That’s just, I think, who he feels comfortable with, someone who’s calm, professorial, relatively balanced, not the sort of ideological hard-charger.

Now, it does set up a fight. And I suspect we’re going to have a very classic fight, Democrats versus Republicans. I suspect just about every Republican, the Republicans that are now left on the Judiciary Committee, who are still there, the Jeff Sessions, they are pretty much going to vote against. Maybe Orrin Hatch has left some doors open. The Democrats are all going to vote for.

So we will probably have a very predictable fight, Democrat versus Republican. And, actually, overall what strikes me about this pick is, after all, the very mysterious things the president is doing that are unprecedented, the banks, Detroit, this is something we’re actually used to, and it will probably unfold in a pretty predictable way.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And in the end, he’ll get what he wants.

MARK SHIELDS: I would think so. I mean, David Souter, I think, before he leaves the scene, I mean, he is the classic representative of an endangered species, and that is the New England Republican. I mean, and he had all those qualities. He was independent. He was moderate. He was unpredictable. And he came that way, and he’s leaving that way. It’s rather remarkable.

DAVID BROOKS: That’s why it’s telling that this happened the same week as Arlen Specter.

MARK SHIELDS: That’s right.

Implications of Specter's switch

David Brooks
The New York Times
It's interesting to talk to the Republicans who are trying to win them back. They sort of know intellectually they need to somehow have moderates, they need to have coastal people, but it's like physically they can't do it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And speaking of that, another moderate Republican steps out and says, "I'm going to be a Democrat."

MARK SHIELDS: Well, the New Hampshire Republican who succeeded David Souter as attorney general of that state, Tom Rath, long-time Republican National Committeeman, said to me this week after I asked him about the Specter thing, he said, "In 1964, Barry Goldwater, the father of the modern conservative movement, said, 'We ought to saw off the Atlantic seaboard.'" And he said, "45 years later, we're doing it."

And I'd just point this out. This was the words of a major Republican who said, "You could walk from Canada to Mexico from Maine to Arizona and never set foot in a state that's governed by a Republican. And you could drive from North Carolina to New Hampshire and never touch a state where there's a single Republican in the United States Senate."

That was Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader of the Republicans in the Senate, who said that. So, I mean, the loss of Arlen Specter is, I think, I mean, a symbolic and significant development.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What does it mean for the Republicans?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I agree with Mark. It's a lagging indicator; it's not a leading indicator. He moved because the people moved.

And it's not only the people of Pennsylvania. And, you know, it's people all around the country who are in suburbs. In Pennsylvania, it happens to be the suburbs in Delaware and Chester County, those areas outside of Philadelphia, Montgomery County. But those people are all around the Midwest, and the East Coast, and the West Coast.

And there are people who were raised Republican, have a sense of a conservative movement which is for balanced budgets, which is for caution, but which is not necessarily for tax cuts in all reason, all circumstances, and not necessarily pro-life. And those people used to have a home; they don't have a home.

And so, when you talk to them, they just feel estranged. A lot of them have not become Democrats, but they feel estranged. They don't want to pay attention; they just don't feel connected. And I run across this all the time.

And so the Republicans are trying to win them back. And it's interesting to talk to the Republicans who are trying to win them back. They sort of know intellectually they need to somehow have moderates, they need to have coastal people, but it's like physically they can't do it.

Their brains are wired, and they're just stuck in a pattern of thought, and they can't create a separate identity for a different kind of Republican. And they're just stuck.

Party change is slow

Mark Shields
Sixty seats doesn't mean 60 votes by any means.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Mark, what about the Democrats? Is this the coast is clear for President Obama and the Democrats?

MARK SHIELDS: No, I mean, 60 seats doesn't mean 60 votes by any means. I mean, the president is scrambling now to get Democrats to support him whether it's on student loans meant to -- you know, to cut out the private middleman in that process. I mean, there's absolutely no guarantee.

What the Republicans are going through -- David just described very well -- is exactly what Democrats went through. And it was interesting, Judy. At the 2004 Republican convention in New York, an ardent pro-life party with a pro-life president, George Bush, the two primetime speakers were Arnold Schwarzenegger, who is pro-choice, and Rudy Giuliani, who's pro-choice.

Democrats, a pro-life speaker couldn't get near a microphone or a camera. They were barred, basically. And that changed. The Democrats out of power did it.

And a lot of credit has to go to Chuck Schumer, the chairman of the Senate Democratic Campaign Committee, who persuaded Democrats in Pennsylvania to back Bob Casey, the state treasurer, enormously popular, pro-life. And they swallowed. They said, "Because we wanted to beat Rick Santorum." He beat him by 18 points.

And Arlen Specter leaves, and Lindsey Graham puts it best. He said, "We're not losing blue states because we're not conservative enough." You know, he said, "We need to win Pennsylvania if we're going to be a relevant party." And I think that's the problem.

DAVID BROOKS: And it will just take awhile. I have a baseball coach friend who says, "You don't change when you see the light. You change when you feel the heat." And you've got to lose some elections. They're going to have to lose two elections. And I think it's going to take a long time for them to really change.

Government involved in Chrysler

David Brooks
The New York Times
I think they should have gone straight into Chapter 11 without the government. They were going to end up in Chapter 11 anyway, but without the government involvement, so every decision doesn't turn into a political decision.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Let's talk about the Chrysler bankruptcy and restructuring, David. What does it mean for the country? One of the big three automakers is gone. Now, they're saying it's only temporary.

DAVID BROOKS: Well, it's going to Fiat. Well, I think the big thing it means for the country is that the government is deeply involved. And to me, I think this is just a terrible precedent.

I hate the idea of the government picking CEOs, picking non-CEOs. I hate the idea of the government picking who effectively is going to own and control major car companies.

I was looking at a Consumer Reports magazine, and they were rating all the fleets of the different companies. And the Japanese and European fleets were rated on a scale of 1 to 100. They were in the 70s and 80s. Chrysler was like 48. G.M., Ford in the 50s. It's going to take a major turnaround.

Who's going to be a big change agent? Do we really think the UAW is going to be a big change agent to get Chrysler up there, who now have majority ownership? I just think it's a terrible precedent.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So you think they should have just let it go?

DAVID BROOKS: I think they should have gone straight into Chapter 11 without the government. They were going to end up in Chapter 11 anyway, but without the government involvement, so every decision doesn't turn into a political decision.

Let's face it: It looks terrible when the Democratic constituency, the unions, get rewarded and if you want to call it the Republican constituency, the bondholders, just get hosed. So that just looks political.

MARK SHIELDS: Well, David and I obviously disagree on this. I think the UAW has made enormous concessions. They're basically being paid at Toyota wages. All of their benefits are back to Toyota levels at this point.

And the reality was -- and the president identified by name -- it was the hedge funds who held up this deal, whether exactly it should be a deal...

JUDY WOODRUFF: He was pretty angry.

MARK SHIELDS: He was pretty angry. Now, one thing, in all the great polls that the president has had this week, one of the real soft spots is that voters think he's been too easy on Wall Street and he's been too easy on the financial and moneyed interests.

And so, you know, I don't know. This may have been just an authentic genuine outrage on his part, but that was part of it.

We sold 17 million cars in this country just a few years ago. We're down to 9 million now. And America without any automobile industry is, I think, a terrifying prospect. I think they're playing it by ear. They really are. I hope it works; I don't have a feel for whether it will.

Obama's first 100 days

Mark Shields
He does press conferences better than anybody since Jack Kennedy. I mean, he's just -- he's knowledgeable. He's nuanced.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Final thing, President Obama's 100 days. What else is left to say about that, David?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, it's been ambitious, and it's been bold. And I think the thing I keep coming back to -- and even when I disagree on the auto stuff -- it's well put together.

And I think that's the fundamental thing here, that they've managed to put together in an efficient way -- I sort of give Rahm Emanuel, somebody who's somewhat overlooked, some credit just for making the trains run on time, getting everything working well. And, believe me, that's not automatic when you're running 8,000 different policies.

MARK SHIELDS: Two things I'd say, Judy. First of all, in Great Britain, they have a head of state and a head of government. The queen is the head of state for all the ceremonial, and they've got a government, the prime minister.

We combine the two in the president. And I think Peter Hart put it well this week. He said that...


MARK SHIELDS: ... the pollster -- Barack Obamas, as head of state, is just off the boards. I mean, people like him, they admire him, and all the rest of it. And I think that's a major, major factor.

And he does press conferences better than anybody since Jack Kennedy. I mean, he's just -- he's knowledgeable. He's nuanced. The only question that threw him off was Jeff Zeleny's of the New York Times, which I happened to think was a very good question.

JUDY WOODRUFF: This was the four questions, you know, which are the most embarrassing and the most...

MARK SHIELDS: Well, yes, I mean -- you know, what's humbled you? You know, what has surprised you? And I thought it was the one that they obviously hadn't planned for.

But, I mean, it's a masterful performance. And I think it's obviously inspiring confidence.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, and now it gets really hard, the second 100 days.

MARK SHIELDS: That's right. And the third.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Masterful and inspiring, David and Mark, thank you very much.

DAVID BROOKS: Which one's which?