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Shields, Brooks Mull Health Reform, Palin’s Role in GOP

June 12, 2009 at 6:40 PM EST
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Columnists Mark Shields and David Brooks assess the chances for health care reform to clear Congress this year, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin's role in the GOP and the significance of the Virginia governor's race.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: And to the analysis of Shields and Brooks. That’s syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks.

Hello, gentlemen.

MARK SHIELDS: Good evening.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Good to see you both.

The president hit the road, Mark, this week to begin to try to sell health care reform. Now, behind the scenes, it’s getting hotter and hotter. The negotiations are getting under way. What’s your sense right now for what the chances for are for — that the president will get real reform this year?

MARK SHIELDS: Define real reform.

We will get health reform. There will be a bill signing. There will be an event.

The product is, I still think, very much to be determined, Judy. But the president has been the total opposite of what we went through in this city 15 years ago with the Clinton administration, where they developed this secret, this incredibly complex plan, and then presented it to the Congress. It never got out of subcommittee.

The president has just given the Congress this long leash on writing it. And I think pretty — sooner, rather than later, as he emphasized the urgency for moving on it, he’s going to have to weigh in, and weigh in heavily.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How do you see the — the odds right now?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. I agree there will be a signing. Something will pass. I think the White House already has a fallback position, which is that, if they can’t get something big, they will at least add more groups to those who are covered. Some groups that aren’t covered will be covered.

The question is whether they get the big universal thing, which they want. And there are two issues which I think are the fundamental issues which are the sticking points. The one is the so-called public plan, which is to have a public government insurance plan to compete with the private.

And the question, the crucial question, is, is that going to be subsidized by the government and therefore compete unfairly? A lot of liberals like the public plan. A lot of moderate Democrats are very nervous about it. All Republicans loathe it. And, so, that’s that one fight. That is the one they can probably fudge, find a compromise, and they are already working on that.

To me, the bigger obstacle is cost. They have got — it will cost a billion — $1 trillion to $1.5 trillion over 10 years. They have got to find a way to cover that cost. They have covered about $300 billion so far with some Medicare cuts. They have got — got to find another way.

And the way to do that, most people say, is to tax employer benefits. And most health care experts think that this is a great idea, including me. But the question is, do you tax just the rich, in which case you don’t get enough money, or does the Obama administration really tax the middle class and break — break that campaign pledge?

Shaping health care reform

Mark Shields
Syndicated columnist
I think that there's one complication. And that is, the Republicans this week indicated that they are not going to come up with an alternative, and they are basically going to play no ball.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Mark, where do you come down on all this?

MARK SHIELDS: Come down on the plan itself?

JUDY WOODRUFF: On -- on -- yes.

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I think that -- I think that David's identified what the problem is.

I think that there's one complication. And that is, the Republicans this week indicated that they aren't -- that they are not going to come up with an alternative, and they are basically going to play no ball. They're going to -- and -- and I think, when we got the announcement that the Chamber of Congress has come up with $100 million that they are going to preserve the private sector with, starting with health insurance and opposing the public plan, but the -- I think the public plan is necessary, a necessary ingredient to the Obama plan, because, Judy, what we have in health care right now is the failure of -- of the private -- of private enterprise at work.

I mean it does not -- we cannot cover 48 million people. I mean, it does not. It is -- it's too much. The cost is too prohibitive. So, there has to be some means of covering people who cannot afford a private plan.

David identifies a very key problem. And that is, if it's open-ended, and the government is just going to write a check, and it doesn't have to meet a balance sheet each year, the public plan, then that -- that is a threat to the private insurance plans. And I think they will fight it tooth and toenail.

DAVID BROOKS: It's not as if Medicare has been the -- a sustainable program. It's not a sustainable program.

Personally, I -- I go back to this point of taxing health care benefits, which is a thing we fell into, accidentally, more or less, about 50 years ago or whatever. Most...

MARK SHIELDS: World War II.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, just after World War II.

DAVID BROOKS: Well, we don't need a history lesson on it.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes. That's right.

DAVID BROOKS: But, essentially, I -- I think we need to adjust that, because it is the most generous tax giveaway in the tax code.

It is skewed incredibly toward the rich. And, most importantly, it cuts off any relationship between what we -- we get and what we pay for. And, therefore, it drives health care inflation. So, there was a panel a couple months ago in which the experts, almost all of them, were for it.

The politicians, almost all of them, are against it, because it is raising taxes.

MARK SHIELDS: Right now -- and the argument is, politically, on the part of the some Democrats, oh, my gosh, we would be retreating, because John McCain did advocate this.

What they would not do is a tax exclusion. They -- they would put in a limit, for example, starting at $10,400, as some have suggested, which is the average contribution made by companies. Where -- where it began, interestingly enough, was, during World War II, there was a wage freeze. And, so, in order to increase the benefits to workers, as -- as the economy perked along, they gave out health care.

And it was -- it was, in fact, tax-exempt. And it was -- and it is indefensible, in the long run, to be tax-exempt.

DAVID BROOKS: But Obama hammered McCain for this...

MARK SHIELDS: Yes, he did.

DAVID BROOKS: ... and said, I will not cut -- raise on the middle class.

JUDY WOODRUFF: In the campaign, right.

DAVID BROOKS: He would have to break both those promises to do that.

Sarah Palin in the news

David Brooks
New York Times
A lot of people have a lot of emotion invested in hating her as a symbol of know-nothing Republicanism. A lot of people have other emotion invested in her in being the symbol of defiance against the East Coast establishment. I'm sort of unmoved.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Different subject.

The governor of Alaska, Sarah Palin, got into two pretty visible spats this week, one of them with congressional Republicans and Newt Gingrich, David, the other one with David Letterman.

Why is she such a lightning rod?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I -- my -- jokingly, it's just, why? She is very attractive.

And a lot of people have a lot of emotion invested in her. A lot of people have a lot of emotion invested in hating her as a symbol of know-nothing Republicanism. A lot of people have other emotion invested in her in being the symbol of defiance against the East Coast establishment.

I'm sort of unmoved either way. And I don't think that either of these things is really much about substance. Dave Letterman told a joke. Big deal. And then battle -- the supposed kerfuffle with Newt Gingrich was really over ego, who had the top billing at a speech.

But Sarah Palin is the big headline figure in the Republican Party, much to the detriment of the Republican Party.

MARK SHIELDS: If Sarah Palin gets in an ego battle with Newt Gingrich, she will lose. Anyone would, because Newt Gingrich's ego is bigger than anybody in the Western world.

MARK SHIELDS: Two -- two things. One, she has a logistical problem.

Being governor of Alaska is not only six time zones away. It is 8,000 miles to get anywhere. So, her -- her question as to whether she would accept the invitation was back and forth, and looked like she was being indifferent. I don't think her organization...

JUDY WOODRUFF: Speaking at the Republican...

MARK SHIELDS: Speaking at this dinner, which she did show up at.

And, you know, I think that she did come. She obviously excited those in the room. She excites an awful lot of people, interests people.

I -- as a fan of David Letterman, I found what he did to her indefensible. He made -- made a reference to her -- her daughter -- the only daughter who was traveling with her in New York on her trip to New York was her 14-year-old daughter -- and said during this game at Yankee Stadium, during the seven inning, she -- her daughter got pregnant by Alex Rodriguez, the Yankee third baseman.

We had a rule. We never made jokes about Chelsea Clinton. I don't think anybody -- we consider the Obama children off-limits. I don't know why Sarah Palin's children are open season.

DAVID BROOKS: I know why. It's because hating Sarah Palin is a -- is a pastime in parts of America. And I'm no big fan of her.

But the -- the climate in a room, in a comedy room in New York City, frankly, would not be to object, because it is Sarah Palin.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Is she -- where are her chances right -- I mean, or is it just so far, so early, that it's -- that it's -- one shouldn't even talk about what her chances...

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I mean, if you look over the future of the Republican Party, she has got star quality. Whether she has depth and substance is another thing.

I -- I think what the Republican Party is going to need, their -- their main issue now, and for the next several years, will be federal spending and the deficits. And, therefore, personally, I think what they need is somebody like Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels, who is a hawk, who has not that much charisma, but he's very smart, and will just seem sensible.

I think that is what the party needs to rediscover itself, to be sensible and practical.

MARK SHIELDS: Sarah Palin is at a disadvantage as a 2012 candidate, because she is the only candidate in the race with a real job. Mitt Romney doesn't have a job. Mike Huckabee doesn't have a job. Newt Gingrich doesn't have a job.

She is governor. And being governor means you have to be there. So, that -- that really is a difficulty, I really do -- I mean, I think she has demonstrated that she appeals to voters, to -- especially to Republican voters. And I think she has to fill out the substance part of her resume.

Virginia Democratic primary

David Brooks
New York Times
To me, it's proof that God exists, because Terry McAuliffe is not one of my favorite people on Earth. Not personal, I just think he exemplifies a style of highly partisan, slash-and-burn politics, the worst side of Clintonism.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Parochial question. We're -- our studio is in the state of Virginia. Virginia had a very hotly contested Democratic primary for governor this week. The fellow a lot of people thought was going to win, David, was the former Democratic national party chair, Terry McAuliffe, close friends of the Clintons.

He lost to a little-known [state] senator from rural southern Virginia. What do we make of all this?

DAVID BROOKS: He lost big-time, too.

And I would -- I -- to me, it's proof that God exists, because Terry McAuliffe is not one of my favorite people on Earth. Not personal. I just think he exemplifies a style of highly partisan slash-and-burn politics, the worst side of Clintonism.

And I think the -- the voters in Virginia did not like that style. And they liked the sensible, warm and authentically Virginian. And they went with Deeds.

MARK SHIELDS: I will defend Terry McAuliffe. I mean, I think it's always difficult to move from a position as a party chair to run for a statewide office, especially in a state that is not as partisan as Virginia. And Virginia is not as partisan as some places, where it might be more welcoming to a Democratic chair.

Judy, Northern Virginia, for people beyond our viewing, immediate viewing area, is the northeast of Virginia. It is -- it's the most liberal part of the state. This is an area where people not only read newspapers; they read newspaper editorials.

And the endorsement of...

JUDY WOODRUFF: And Deeds...

MARK SHIELDS: ... Creigh Deeds by The Washington Post gave him a legitimacy, a seal of approval, that I think really was enormously helpful to him.

And, you know, I -- I think that Virginia voters have demonstrated in the election of Jim Webb in 2006, when they chose him over a more orthodox liberal in the primary, that they -- they are interested in somebody's ability to win. And I think David's point about authenticity is part of it.

Extremists' acts of violence

Mark Shields
Syndicated columnist
I think that we all felt so much better as a nation when Barack Obama was elected, that, somehow, we were over prejudice and over -- that we had moved beyond. And this is a stark reminder that it is very much still with us.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Last, I want to bring up what we just heard about the reopening of the Holocaust Museum today.

It's been -- you know, we know that the debate is everywhere right now, Mark, about whether there's some climate -- we heard that in Kwame Holman report -- of whether it's intolerance, outright hate, that may be contributing to some of these extremist acts.

Where are you in your thinking...

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I think -- I think that we all felt so much better as a nation when Barack Obama was elected, that, somehow, we were over prejudice and over -- that we had moved beyond.

And this is a stark reminder that it is very much still with us. And I -- this is not an attack on the Internet, but there was a time when people like von Brunn were so isolated, in the attic or in the basement, because of their beliefs and their -- their -- just their weirdness.

But the Internet gives them a certain validity to these beliefs, that they can establish a community of like-minded haters. And I think, in a strange way, that encourages and nurtures this kind of indefensible and -- and -- and just outrageous and unacceptable act.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes.

I -- I think people act this way because they don't think society is giving them the status to which they think they are entitled. And they get angry at everything. And they look for conspiracies.

But I hesitate to draw any broader conclusion. The definition of these people is, they live in extremely suspicious subcultures that take very little information from the outside world. And they nurture each other in small extremist subcultures.

So, I, frankly, don't think it says that much about the rest of the world.

JUDY WOODRUFF: A somewhat hopeful statement in a very, very grim thing.

JUDY WOODRUFF: David Brooks, Mark Shields, thank you, both.

MARK SHIELDS: Thank you, Judy.