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Climate Bill, Sanford’s Future Top Week’s Political News

June 26, 2009 at 6:20 PM EDT
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Columnists Mark Shields and David Brooks examine developments in the landmark climate change legislation before Congress, as well as the fallout from S.C. Gov. Mark Sanford's admission to an extramarital affair.

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

Gentlemen, thank you both for being with us.

Let’s start out with those two big domestic issues we just heard about. And, Mark, right now, the House, we hear, as we sit here at this moment, the House is moving toward a vote on energy legislation, climate change, impassioned debate on the floor. The president’s been on the telephone. The Republicans say they don’t have the votes.

If the president’s able to get this and the Democrats get this, how big a victory?

MARK SHIELDS, syndicated columnist: It’s a major victory. It’s one of the three legs in the president’s stool of an agenda, in the sense of this and the health care being, you know, the two and the economic stimulus.

I’d say this, Judy, that, as big a victory as it is for Barack Obama, as big a victory as it is for Henry Waxman, the author of it, Ed Markey, the others involved in it, it’s an enormous achievement for Nancy Pelosi.

Nancy Pelosi’s public numbers in every poll have been down, and this is a very difficult vote. Bob Dole said it well: On Capitol Hill, we love to make tough speeches. We don’t like to make tough choices.

This bill is going to be criticized in its particulars, but it is enormous intervention and a risky one politically for those voting for it. And they put together a coalition of Democrats that is really across the board, and she did it. She was the key. She was the push.

This is her signature issue. And outside of the institution, she may not be popular. Inside, she is as effective as any speaker in recent times.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How do you read it?

DAVID BROOKS, columnist, New York Times: Well, it’s how they did it that I think should worry us. I think the basic idea of cap and trade, as Barack Obama…

JUDY WOODRUFF: You said “should worry us”?

DAVID BROOKS: I think the way they got there, because the basic idea of what President Obama proposed is a good idea, of selling off these permits and then creating these markets to give people an incentive.

But in order to get the majority, they didn’t do what the White House originally wanted, which was to sell off the permits. They’re basically giving them away, especially in the beginning. And so that created this vast lobbying campaign, as utilities and everybody else said, “Give it to us. Give us this free stuff or compensate us.”

And so it became this wish list of giving stuff away. Some industries got better than others. And so you created these all sorts of distortions.

I think the second problem some people have with the bill, who like the basic idea, is that they got into, for example, federalizing housing codes and things like that, so they added another layer of legislation.

So to me the story is a pretty pure idea which, through the political process, has already turned into something else.

MARK SHIELDS: I would say this. Is the perfect the enemy of the good here? I think it’s an imperfect piece of legislation, certainly. There had to be compromises made.

But the point of getting this principle established in law as the law of the land that we’re going to cut carbon emissions is an enormous — Judy, I mean, the last administration, we spent energy and hours and time arguing about whether there was a problem, whether, in fact, there was climate change, whether there was global warming.

I mean, it happens that 10 of the hottest years in record have occurred in this country since 1998, which has helped the argument. But to make that case and to get this done, I think you can improve it. David’s absolutely right, there are flaws.

But I think the principle is established, and I think it’s almost epic.

DAVID BROOKS: I would say, I mean — I would say it’s not just around the margins that they’ve changed the bill. They’ve fundamentally changed the bill.

And so, when you do a cost-benefit analysis of the thing, what we seem to be getting is a very small reduction in warming — 0.1 percent of 1 degree of Centigrade or 10 percent of a degree of Centigrade over some number of years — with this very high cost.

But that’s not even what worries me, the cost. It’s the way we’re manipulating the market and creating some set of winners, some set of losers, which is going to make the cost so astronomical.

Health care reform

David Brooks
The New York Times
They don't impose their will, and so things on Capitol Hill get taken away and bills get shaped and the policy gets shaped. I wish the White House were much more assertive.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Let's talk about health care reform. Prospects didn't look as good -- so good as they had. Last week, the report came out from the Congressional Budget Office that it was $1.6 trillion.

Now, the Democrats in the Senate, David, have been working on it to get the price tag down. Do the prospects look any different?

DAVID BROOKS: I'd say they do. Just reading the tea leaves out of Max Baucus' committee, they seem to look a little better. They're talking about getting a $1 trillion bill as opposed to a $1.2 trillion or a $1.6 trillion. They're also talking about paying with it, presumably by taxing employer-provided health benefits.

To me, again, this is the same story with cap and trade for me. You've got something that comes out of the White House. The White House is surprisingly un-aggressive about what happens on Capitol Hill. They don't impose their will, and so things on Capitol Hill get taken away and bills get shaped and the policy gets shaped.

I wish the White House were much more assertive. And I would say the same is true in health care. They may solve the basic problem of paying for this bill within 10 years, but have they solved the basic problem of changing the incentives so health care costs overall do not continue to skyrocket? That's the part I don't see in the bill right here coming out of the Baucus committee.

MARK SHIELDS: The difference between cap and trade and health care is that, six months ago, nobody in Washington thought there would be a cap-and-trade legislation. I mean, everybody is surprised that this is happening in the House.

The health care is different. The health care is the imperative. It's the urgent piece of legislation in this administration.

On the cost issue, Judy, Senator Baucus has come up with a working coalition within his own committee. Democrats and Republicans, sort of moderate Democrats, Jay Rockefeller, the Health chairman, is not a part of it.

But I really think what you have here more than anything else on health care is the maxim of Joe Langone, who was a great city councilman of the city of Boston, who coined the phrase, "Everybody wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die."

And on this one, everybody wants health care; everybody wants to cover those who aren't covered; everybody wants to close the gaps. But somehow, when it comes to that act of will, political will of the cost involved -- because the president said it's going to be cost-neutral, we're going to pay for it.

But right now, that is the biggest issue. And what's missing in the whole process, all the efforts of Chris Dodd, who's the de facto acting chairman of the Senate Labor Committee...

The Kennedy void

Mark Shields
Syndicated columnist
The question I think we have this week is, is Barack Obama, the president of the United States, willing and up to being the Ted Kennedy, of driving this issue, about really taking the lead in it?

JUDY WOODRUFF: Without Senator Kennedy.

MARK SHIELDS: ... without Senator Kennedy, and to Max Baucus, who's worked long and hard on this, Ted Kennedy is missed. Forty years of knowledge, forty years of working on both sides of the aisle, of knowing the Democrats in the Senate, the Democrats in the House, Republicans in both bodies, being able to put together coalitions.

The question I think we have this week is, is Barack Obama, the president of the United States, willing and up to being the Ted Kennedy, of driving this issue, about really taking the lead in it? And I think that's what he's going to have to do.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, David, you're saying he hasn't done that yet?

DAVID BROOKS: No, he's talked a great game on cost, which to me is the core issue. We do not want to go bankrupt as a country, and I'm off the reservation. I'm for single-payer. I'm for anything to help it reduce costs. And he has talked a great game on costs. He's really emphasized the need to bend the curve...

JUDY WOODRUFF: Every time he goes out and speaks, he talks about it.

DAVID BROOKS: And this is unique for a Democrat. He's way out in front of where other Democrats have been. But have we actually taken the tough choices to actually bend the curve? Not yet.

Now, it may happen. And they're emphasizing this thing called MedPAC, which is this board which would be like -- sort of like a Federal Reserve, which would centrally control costs. Maybe that will do it; maybe that won't. But so far, I would say they have not made those tough choices.

The U.S. response to Iran

Mark Shields
Syndicated Columnist
There is no defense. This is repression. It's brutality. It's a totalitarian regime that is indifferent to the well-being of its own people totally.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Two other things I want to ask you about. Iran, tough talk today and earlier from the hardliners there. Mark, tougher talk from the president. Where does it stand? Is U.S. policy at this point where it should be?

MARK SHIELDS: U.S. policy is driven by events at this point. And what has happened in the last two weeks is the world looks at Iran and that regime entirely differently.

I mean, it had its critics, no question about it. But now the jury is out. There is no defense. This is repression. It's brutality. It's a totalitarian regime that is indifferent to the well-being of its own people totally.

And so this was Tiananmen Square, only a lot bigger. And so I think the president is right now reflecting what is not only American attitude but world attitude toward Iran.

What it means as far as relations, negotiations is still up, but now we know for the first time there's a real opposition and a courageous opposition in Iran.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Anything else this president, this administration should be doing?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, what they're trying to do, obviously, judging by President Obama's comments today, is trying to figure out, where do we go from here?

Because you've got two problems. One is the regime is incredibly nasty and brutal, not short. Some of us knew that for a long time.

But the second problem is the nuclear clock continues to tick. And my feeling is they cannot go back to the engagement policy they thought they had before. We have to think of something else. What that something else will be is a mystery.

But that is the essential problem. We're probably not going to get a deal with this regime, but the nuclear clock ticks.


MARK SHIELDS: Just one -- I don't think -- there weren't illusions about Iran. But I think the world now -- I mean, in other words, there's no case to be made for Iran, before, you know, we've seen that, with other nations, as well, taking the same position.

Mark Sanford and the G.O.P.

David Brooks
The New York Times
The simple arithmetic is that there's fewer, fewer leading forces in the Republican field for 2012. It's been reduced by maybe 40 percent in the last week.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Back in this country, the governor of South Carolina, Mark Sanford -- I don't know where to begin -- conservative Republican, girlfriend in Argentina, disappears for a few days. Just another philandering politician, David?

DAVID BROOKS: No, I actually draw a distinction between my philandering politicians. And in private, what they all do is reprehensible, but some people have, like, little side sleazy affairs and some people actually fall in love. And Sanford seems to be in category two, which to me makes him a little less reprehensible than the guys who have sleazy affairs.

But in a perverse way, in terms of the public action, when you fall in love, as we saw in the e-mails, as we saw in the press conference this week, you get a total loss of control. And it actually, obviously, has had a more devastating effect on him.

And so I sort of admire him better as a person because he didn't have bimbos, even though he did betray his family. But because he fell in love, he seems to have totally lost his bearings. And that has a public impact, a bigger public impact than the other would have.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Less reprehensible?

MARK SHIELDS: I don't get into a hierarchy of reprehensibility. I think politically it's a serious offense because he's a governor. Governors have real jobs. I mean, when a governor is a missing...

JUDY WOODRUFF: As opposed to...

MARK SHIELDS: To senators. I mean, a senator is one of a hundred. A senator makes speeches; a governor makes decisions. Governors are in charge of universities. It's not only prison breaks and tornadoes. They have thousands of people. They run a major enterprise.

I mean, the level of delusion -- David calls it romantic love or whatever, blinded by it -- I mean, the idea that he could get on a plane, fly to Argentina, and disappear for five days, I mean, is just -- and that press conference was painful to watch.

But this is an important movement for the Republican Party. And I say this not to crow or anything of the sort. Family values and moral righteousness has been an important belief and organizing principle about the Republican Party.

George W. Bush won the White House in 2000 in part because of the pledge of his campaign: I will restore dignity and I won't embarrass you, restore dignity to the Oval Office.

JUDY WOODRUFF: After the Clinton administration.

MARK SHIELDS: After the Clinton administration. And that was a theme that worked. I mean, it was a time when the country thought the nation was going 2-1 in the right direction.

So that's important. I think it means for 2012 that the two candidates who are really helped are Mike Huckabee, who is somebody who's a non-self-righteous evangelical, and Mitt Romney. That would be my judgment.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Both happily married, as far as we know.

MARK SHIELDS: Both happily married, as far as we know, exactly, but, you know, are not so afflicted. I think probably maybe, for instance, it hurts Newt Gingrich.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What is the effect on 2012? Or is there?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, first of all, I don't think Mark said this, but some people are saying it's a Republican affliction.


DAVID BROOKS: And I think both character flaws are bipartisan. But the simple arithmetic is that there's fewer, fewer leading forces in the Republican field for 2012. It's been reduced by maybe 40 percent in the last week. And then more if you include Governor Huntsman from Utah becoming our ambassador to China.

So now we really are down to Senator Palin, Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee, and very few others.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Because you lost John Ensign...

DAVID BROOKS: John Ensign. And so, unless somebody comes out of the blue -- and my candidate right now is Mitch Daniels, the governor of Indiana, who is not that charismatic, but is a very good governor and very fiscally conservative and responsible. And he's the sort of person I think the Republicans should be leading the Republican Party. He, I should say, has shown no interest in running for president so far.

MARK SHIELDS: I like Mitch Daniels. I've known him longer than David has, I think. I knew him when he was a Republican staffer on the Hill.

He is fiscally responsible as governor. He was the budget director under George W. Bush. And that's going to be -- there's a fiscal responsibility credential that's been somewhat tarnished.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, there's nothing tarnished when I talk with the two of you. Mark Shields, David Brooks, have a great weekend. Thank you both.