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Shields and Brooks Examine Mass. Senate Race, U.S. Quake Aid

January 15, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Columnists Mark Shields and David Brooks sort through the week's news, including the tight Senate race in Massachusetts and the American response to the devastating earthquake in Haiti.

JIM LEHRER: And to the analysis of Shields and Brooks, syndicated columnist Mark Shields, New York Times columnist David Brooks.

Mark, how could it be that this Massachusetts Senate race has suddenly become too close to call?

MARK SHIELDS: Massachusetts isn’t that Democratic a state, Jim. They have 10 congressmen. They’re all Democrats. They have two senators. They’re both Democrats. They have 200 people in the legislature — 176 of them are Democrats. And all six constitutional officers are Democrats. So, that is the question.

JIM LEHRER: That’s the question?

MARK SHIELDS: The question…

JIM LEHRER: What’s the answer?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, the answer you get, at least talking to people involved politically in Massachusetts, a lot of criticism of Martha Coakley’s sitting on a nonexistent lead in her campaign, that Scott Brown has run a good campaign.

But underlying everything else is this sense of anger, this almost inchoate, formless fury and anger that people are feeling against Washington, against the Democrats. I mean, it seems to be the harbinger of the third election in a row where you have had the ins thrown out and the outs put in.

It happened in 2006, when the Democrats took over the Congress. It happened in 2008, when the Democrats swept everything. And now the Democrats are the ins, and there is a building, building fury. And Scott Brown has tapped into it, and a sense of independence. And it is very much a race. The president is going in there Sunday.

JIM LEHRER: And he had no plans to do that until about three days ago…


JIM LEHRER: … three moments ago, right?

MARK SHIELDS: That’s right, which tells you the seriousness of it.

MARK SHIELDS: But the second thing is that for those of us who have been through campaigns, it is incredibly disruptive to have a presidential visit, because, when you’re 48 hours away from an election, you are getting your assignments about who is going to work which precinct and who’s going to make what calls and drive what cars.

All of a sudden, a presidential visit comes in, and it just throws everything up in the air. Everybody is involved in that. And it really disrupts a campaign. But they must feel the need for that energy.

JIM LEHRER: How do you read what has happened?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, firstly, Coakley is a bad candidate. As Mark said, it’s an outsider year.

JIM LEHRER: A bad candidate in what way?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, a couple things. One, it is an outsider year, and she is running as an incumbent. She is running as an insider. That is a mistake.

Then there are just the stray gaffes. She said — in a famous episode, she was asked to go shake hands. And she said, well, actually, I — no. What would I gain by shaking hands out of Fenway Park?

Well, that is exactly what you should be doing. You’re running for office. Shake some hands. Go out and meet some people. So, there is that problem.

Then there is the general inchoate anger in the country. But then there is opposition to health care. I mean, Brown, what strikes me is, he is not waging — he is not waging a Bill Weld Republican Massachusetts campaign.

MARK SHIELDS: That’s true.

DAVID BROOKS: He is waging an Idaho campaign, a Montana campaign. He is waging a very conservative campaign directly at health care. She says, you’re going to kill health care.

He said, yes, that is why I am running.

And, so, he is running a very conservative campaign. And he is drawing very even. And I — as of yesterday, Obama was not going up there. And you can see why he’s going.

JIM LEHRER: He made a decision a few hours ago.

DAVID BROOKS: He is still popular there. So…

JIM LEHRER: Obama is.

DAVID BROOKS: … maybe it would help. But I would be worried of a couple of things. One, it is the barrage of the insiders coming up there.

And, secondly — and I know this was a concern in the White House — some of the people with whom they need to win over are not core Obama people. Remember, he lost the primary there to Hillary Clinton among white working class. And so they are afraid he doesn’t really deliver that — those people.


MARK SHIELDS: One wrinkle on the health thing…


MARK SHIELDS: … that Scott Brown has a very adroit answer, which is, we in Massachusetts already have health insurance. They do. I mean, they have universal health insurance, Mitt Romney’s plan, which he owned and then disowned during the — his campaign for presidency.

JIM LEHRER: But it is still in existence.

MARK SHIELDS: But he said — that’s right. It is still the law. And 96 percent of the people in Massachusetts have health coverage.

He said, why should we pay our taxes to cover people in Texas? So, I mean, there is a certain sense of pride, as well as provincialism, as well as anti-tax in his message. Republicans have already won this race, Jim. I mean, let’s get that straight.

JIM LEHRER: What do you mean?

MARK SHIELDS: I mean, because here is the Democrats spending the president’s capital and time, a half-a-million dollars in Massachusetts in January. I mean, what does that mean they are going to be spending in Nevada and Arkansas and Ohio and Missouri in October?

You know, they will have to go to Ben Bernanke to underwrite it. And it has made the recruiting easier for the Republicans. The victories in New Jersey — candidate recruitment, convincing people to run for office. The victories in New Jersey and Virginia. Kevin McCarthy…

JIM LEHRER: The governor’s — the two governor’s races.

MARK SHIELDS: That’s right.


MARK SHIELDS: Kevin McCarthy is in charge of the House Republican recruitment. He called me this afternoon to tell me not only that his job is easier, but that Vic Snyder, a seven-term Democrat from Arkansas, just announced his retirement. He has got Tim Griffin, the former U.S. attorney, running against him.

I mean…

DAVID BROOKS: There still is something hanging out there, because health care is really…

MARK SHIELDS: Health care is unpopular.

DAVID BROOKS: Well, and — but it’s really hanging in the balance, I think.

JIM LEHRER: So, it is because of the — as the Republican candidate keeps saying, I will be the 41st Republican. And that means no 60 votes for the Democrats, no health care reform.

DAVID BROOKS: There is the psychological aftershocks of losing in Massachusetts.

And then, so, now Washington — in Washington, the Democrats are saying, well, if he loses, maybe we could pass it in the lame-duck session, before he actually takes a seat, or we could hold it up. We could claim a recount, ask for a recount.

To me, that is crazy talk, because, if you have an earthquake, you can’t just then do some monkey business and pass it a lame-duck session, a major piece of legislation.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree that is crazy talk, Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: I agree. You have 10 days to certify the results.


MARK SHIELDS: I mean, the results are the results. And 10 days are not required to do it. And David is right.

JIM LEHRER: If anybody tried to play games with that, they couldn’t get away with it?

MARK SHIELDS: No, they couldn’t get away with it.

But that — this race has been nationalized. I mean, the president, you know, is — an up-or-down vote on him, whether he went there or didn’t go there. So, he has made the decision to go there, to push all the chips into the middle of the table.

JIM LEHRER: But, in a word, if, by chance, Coakley does win, and they maintain the 60 votes, does this deal today on health care reform — not today — this week on health care reform on these so-called Cadillac plans, is that going to make it — is it going to get through, do you think?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, I think so.

And I should say I think — I still think Coakley will win.


DAVID BROOKS: I just — at the end of the day, it’s Massachusetts. So, I think it — will win.

And then the deal they have struck is the deal they needed with the unions. And I have to say, I don’t like the deal, because I think it is a sweetheart special carve-out for people who happen to have union contracts. Nonetheless, for people…

JIM LEHRER: It is enough?

DAVID BROOKS: It will get through, yes.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree?

MARK SHIELDS: Yes. I just — I really have nothing but disdain and admiration for the person who came up with the term Cadillac plan. I mean, these are not Cadillac plans. I mean, you’re talking about…

JIM LEHRER: You mean the people on the other side?

MARK SHIELDS: Yes. I mean, the people who oppose and say — they call them Cadillac plans.

I mean, if you took the United States Senate — Allan Sloan makes this point — as a separate entity, 63-year-old men, the average — the average premium for an individual would be $13,000 a year. And it would be $32,000 for a family. That is a Cadillac plan.

But because they are in the whole federal program, with everybody else as an employee, it’s $6,000 and $13,000. So, they get a pretty good deal out of it. I mean, so workers who are older, who have tougher jobs, who have picked up more, are tough — they have higher premiums as a result.


Do you agree with David that Coakley is probably going to win anyhow?

MARK SHIELDS: I think — I don’t know who is going to win. The most optimistic Democrat…

JIM LEHRER: You don’t know who is going to win?

MARK SHIELDS: The most optimistic Democrat I talked to today said, “I think Coakley is in good shape.”

I said, “How good shape?”

“I think the middle — the middle single digits.”

Middle single digits in a special election, bad weather in January, anything can happen.

JIM LEHRER: Finally, David, you wrote a column today on Haiti and what it says about global poverty. Explain your thesis.

DAVID BROOKS: Well, to me, this is not only a natural disaster story; it is a poverty story.

We had a 7.0 magnitude earthquake in this country in 1998, or ’96, in the Bay Area, very densely populated. Sixty-three people died — now 45,000, 50,000. So, it is not only the disaster. It is the poverty. It’s the bad construction. It’s the bad service.

JIM LEHRER: Maybe 140,000, 150,000.

DAVID BROOKS: Maybe, yes. Yes.


DAVID BROOKS: And, so, that’s about the social underlying factor here.

And the problem is, we have spent 30 years trying to use foreign aid to create economic growth and reduce poverty. We don’t know how to do it. It worked — we have reduced poverty in China, where we have no aid, but we have 10,000 NGOs in Haiti. We have more aid workers per capita in Haiti than in any other country, just about.

And, yet — they are doing wonderful work, but we haven’t been able to build it into some comprehensive change. So, to me, what this — beyond the short term, in the medium term, we have to think about, how do we rethink aid? How do we — do we want to make a long-term commitment to places, to failed states like Haiti to bring them up to the Dominican Republic, which is next door?

And, so, I think it is worth doing, and I think this should be an occasion for that.

JIM LEHRER: To reexamine everything?

DAVID BROOKS: It really does, because we have done a lot in Haiti over the — I mean, politically and militarily, economically, and in aid, and it hasn’t done much.

JIM LEHRER: How do you feel about that, Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: I think it is a — very, very worthwhile and interesting that we say that.

I think the president’s response was appropriate and right. I think that, if not us, I don’t know who. We are the only people who can do it. It’s something that we do and do well. And it is very important that we do it and go into Haiti.

And I think the fact that and the sense of urgency, of bringing Secretary Clinton back from her Asian trip, and canceling Secretary Gates’ trip to Australia, I mean, I think it shows a commitment. And I hope it is as thoughtful and reasoned.

But it is an opportunity to restore that country and to rebuild it. And the United States military is the de facto operating — operating command of that country.

JIM LEHRER: Exactly, right now, at this moment.

David, Mark, thank you both.