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Shields and Brooks on the Search for Bipartisanship

January 29, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Columnists Mark Shields and David Brooks assess the top stories of the past week, including President Obama's appearance at a House GOP retreat and why Republicans may have little incentive to reach across the aisle.

JIM LEHRER: But first, as promised, the analysis of Shields and Brooks, syndicated columnist Mark Shields, New York Times columnist David Brooks.

Mark, what did you think of the Obama and the Republican show in Baltimore?

MARK SHIELDS: I thought it was terrific.

I think, if the White House had had its choice, it would have substituted that for the State of the Union address and presented it in prime time. I mean, I thought it showed the president at his best.

He marshals facts. He presents arguments. He rebuts criticism, does it in a civil way, without any rancor. I just thought it was a tour de force. And the Republicans are sort of hoisted on their transparency petard. They had criticized the president for not fulfilling his pledge of openness and transparency and having the hearings on C-SPAN, as they promised during the campaign.

And, so, they were stuck with this being open. They didn’t want it to be televised, that Q&A part. And I think…

JIM LEHRER: Well, it was.

MARK SHIELDS: I think it was there and I the think that the president engaged them in a way that you can’t in a State of the Union, when they just sit there stolidly and silently. And you got a sense of comparison today. And I think it worked to Barack Obama’s advantage.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree, worked to his advantage?

DAVID BROOKS: A bit, though everyone was sort of charged up about it. All of Washington is actually very excited about it. People were thrilled.


DAVID BROOKS: I mean, and Democrats were very thrilled. The president’s naturally going to dominate an event like that. He’s got the podium. They are just holding handhelds. He’s got — but Republicans were thrilled, too, actually.

I spoke to a bunch of Republicans who were there afterwards and people who are writing online.

JIM LEHRER: What did they say? What did they say?

DAVID BROOKS: They were happy. They said, you know, he said all along we don’t have plans, but, over and over again, he acknowledged, yes, we do have alternatives. We have been offering them.

So, they acknowledged that he got most of the time and he did very well. But they were thrilled that they got some points across. And they were thrilled by the exchange.

And I think Americans will be thrilled by the exchange, to the extent they see it. And will it lead to a mass depolarization? Not exactly, obviously. And, you know, there are fundamental differences on many issues, like health care. There’s just different approaches.

But I think one of the things the president did very well was list a whole series of things on which there’s not necessarily differences, things like pay-go…

JIM LEHRER: He made a big point of that, yes, yes.

DAVID BROOKS: … pay-go legislation, the spending freeze, a lot of the cuts in the capital gains tax. There is no reason there can’t be some agreement on that stuff.

So, I thought it’s possible to see going forward, on some of the job creation stuff, you could see some bipartisanship there.

JIM LEHRER: Do you see some — that something like that could come from that?

MARK SHIELDS: I think there will be on certain selected issues, but there is really no incentive for the Republicans to be bipartisan.

And, I mean, just look at where the Republicans were. They went through two stinging election defeats. They lost 52 seats in the House in the two elections back-to-back, 2006, 2008. And the party right now today is at a lower point in public affection and regard than it was in 2006 and 2008, OK?

JIM LEHRER: When they lost.

MARK SHIELDS: When they lost those seats.


MARK SHIELDS: And it’s a party without a compelling voice, national voice or leader, or a face. I mean, you say, who’s the leader of the Republican Party?

And, yet, at the same time, they are tied with the Democrats, who had trounced them in the two previous elections. So, what is the incentive, politically, going into 2010 for them to be collegial all of a sudden?

What they have done so far has gotten them to the point where they are at a parity. I mean, they’re not beloved, nor are the Democrats. They’re far more poorly regarded than the Democrats in the polls. But they are at a parity, and they are poised to have quite an election year right now.

JIM LEHRER: Do you see it they don’t have any incentive, really, political incentive, to make a deal with the Democrats?

DAVID BROOKS: Right. Right. No, they certainly have none. They’re riding high. I mean, you look at the polls. We know what happened in Massachusetts.

But if you look at state after state where there are Senate races, in Pennsylvania, in Ohio, in Illinois, in Missouri, you have seen the same trend in the poll lines. The Republicans are shooting upwards, and now, even in Pennsylvania, the Republican has a huge — a significant lead over the Democrats there.

So, they have no incentive to change things. So, when I’m talking about depolarization, some cooperation, it is on little stuff having to do with job creation and growth, but certainly not — it’s not on the big thing.

And the big thing is the size of government. That’s clearly the core issue. Republicans are very comfortable where they are. And Obama has to do a — make a tricky argument, which is, you hate Washington, you distrust Washington, but, here, we’re in Washington, we want to do these programs.

And that is a trickier argument.

JIM LEHRER: What about the president — of course, he started it in the — very directly in the State of the Union address Wednesday night, and he picked up on it today. He scolded them as well.

I mean, it wasn’t all, hey, let’s all work together. He took them on. He used some kind of tough words.

MARK SHIELDS: He did. I thought — I think the president — and this is where David and I do disagree on whether it is left or right or big or small. I think it has to be showed that government works.

And I thought his rebuttal response to Congressman Mike Pence’s question about the unemployment, and he pointed out that there were 650,000 people laid off and who lost their job in December 2008, 750,000 in January, another 650,000 in February, before his plan kicked in, and that economists now — I mean, he has to make the case, which I think has been very poorly made, that government does and has made a difference, whether it’s in…

JIM LEHRER: You mean, the stimulus package you think has…

MARK SHIELDS: The stimulus package and his other initiatives. I mean, it just — because you can’t be the anti-government candidate while you are the president of the United States. Ronald Reagan managed to do it for eight years, but…

JIM LEHRER: It is a hard case.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes, it is very, very difficult. And he was still talking about the puzzle palaces on the Potomac his seventh year here, when his own people were running the puzzle palaces on the Potomac. But — so, I do think — I do think that the president, you know, quite honestly, has to do that.

And the scolding part, he makes a good argument, and it’s true to Democrats, as well as Republicans, and that is, when you and I are on a different side of an issue, and you say to me, Mark, you’re wrong on this, I think your facts are incomplete, and maybe if I agree with you or I disagree with you, that doesn’t preclude our working together in the future.

But if I say to you, Jim, you’re immoral on this, you are un-American, you don’t care about widows and orphans, or you don’t care about the country or the economy, then I have put a gulf between us. I have demonized you in a way that precludes our working together in the future.

And I think that has been, quite honestly — much of the criticism of the president has been that personal and that demonizing.

JIM LEHRER: Do you think this could change that, I mean not so much — maybe not lead to a lot of, you know, let’s go march and legislate together, but at least the rhetoric might change?

DAVID BROOKS: Maybe marginally. I wouldn’t think so.

I mean, it is partly that. And pretty nasty things were said against President Bush. It’s partly what a lot of the House members were saying today, which is, it’s fine for President Obama to talk about these things, but if you are sitting in the Budget Committee or the Appropriations Committee, and you are in the minority, you have no job. You have no say.

And that was true when the Republicans were in control. And that’s the habits that have been kicked in. And President Obama doesn’t control Nancy Pelosi. And the House has just become structured like that. The Senate is increasingly structured like that. And that’s where a lot of the resentments, the feeling — the feeling of being ignored.

JIM LEHRER: Do you think that President Obama could do something about it, has no influence on what happens in the House? You don’t think this could check it up a little bit?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I think the president could do something about it. But it is — you know, the way you get promoted in Congress is fund-raising. And those people are partisan. And that’s how leadership works.

MARK SHIELDS: I think it’s a lot tougher to be excoriating in speech or condemning in speech when are you sitting across the table from somebody. I really do.

I think that the president can do that by more often with the personal exchanges. It’s embarrassing, then, having talked to you and chatted with you, then to stand up and denounce you in that way.

A great Republican speaker of the House, Joe Cannon, early in the 20th century, said, the minority has a responsibility, and that’s to constitute — help constitute a quorum.

And that’s been the rule of the House for a long time.

DAVID BROOKS: One thing that could help, I think people, if they met members of the House and the Senate, would be astonished at how little they know about each other across party lines, just personally, how their offices work…

JIM LEHRER: They just don’t — they don’t associate…

DAVID BROOKS: … what they are talking about when they’re in their offices or in their caucuses. They know nothing.

And I, frankly — I go interview people on each side, and, sometimes, you feel like you should be the diplomat, and say, no, actually, they are saying this. It’s not — they’re not – you’re wrong about that. They are saying this.

JIM LEHRER: Shuttle diplomacy.


DAVID BROOKS: I could do that. But I could get — have a second career.

MARK SHIELDS: And the effective legislators are the ones who do.


MARK SHIELDS: I mean, the one was do…

JIM LEHRER: The few who are willing to do it.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes, that’s right. It’s interesting.

JIM LEHRER: Yes. That has always been true, has it not?



How does the State of the Union address sound to you two nights later?

DAVID BROOKS: I still think it was a good speech, a good speech for President Obama.

I guess where I — my second thoughts are, it didn’t go far enough. And you look at where the country is, and historically unprecedented disgust at Washington. And, to me, the issue is not left, right. It’s in, out.

And the president did step away from the mess in Washington and the failure to get anything done. And he stepped away, to some degree, by proposing policies that are not orthodox Democratic, by scolding people about the way they behave. But I don’t think he stepped away far enough.

I wish he had gone a little farther, say, “I got too sucked into Washington; I’m really pulling back and doing something radical,” because, if the failure of health care reform and all the stuff of last year didn’t radicalize him, I don’t know what will.

And, so, I — in second thought, I wish he had gone further, especially on the issue of the deficit, which is the symbolic issue in the country’s minds that, if they can’t even take care of the long-term fiscal situation, that’s a sign of self-indulgence and corruption. And we have to take care of that issue. And I wish he had gone a little further now to catch up to where the country already is.

JIM LEHRER: What about the speech?

MARK SHIELDS: I agree with David on the deficit. I mean, if you want to…

JIM LEHRER: He should have made a bigger deal about it?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, the deficit — I mean, the deficit — this is a figure that just absolutely blew me away. The deficit of the United States is bigger than the budget, the total budget of all the countries in the world, except Japan and Germany — and the United Kingdom. Other than that, every other country has a smaller budget than we have a deficit, China, India, Germany, any of the others.

Do I think the president — go far enough? The Democrats are the party of government. The Republicans are the party of nongovernment, I mean, OK? So, when government is unpopular…

JIM LEHRER: You mean in terms of beliefs?

MARK SHIELDS: That’s how people…Democrats believe that government can be an instrument for social justice, for economic progress.

And I think that the president cannot distance himself from that. In fact, I think, when he talks in kind of those offhand things, you know, it’s great to be out of Washington, and be away from Washington, and all that, I think he has to make the case that public service is important, that the public mission, that the difference, whether — 90 percent of the kids in this country go to public schools.

That is why our business…

JIM LEHRER: It’s the public’s business, right?

MARK SHIELDS: It’s the public’s business.

And I really think that is it. I mean, it is a tough slog, but I think that is what he has to do.

JIM LEHRER: What do you — how do you read Ben Bernanke’s confirmation vote? Only got 70 votes and 30 against him.


Well, first, I have said on this program, you know, I — all I do — we interview people, and, sometimes, you interview somebody who just tremendously impresses you. And Ben Bernanke just is tremendously impressive.

And, so, I personally was happy he was reconfirmed. But why was it not unanimous? Well, part of it, you know, he was — he has been — he has made mistakes, like anybody in this kind of circumstance. But, frankly, a lot of it was, this was an easy shot at Wall Street.

And there were several populist moves. This — well, OK, I’m not going to use that word. I’m not going to use that word.


DAVID BROOKS: There were several words — there were several moves this week…

JIM LEHRER: They’re available online.

DAVID BROOKS: … by people who want to take a shot at Wall Street or who just wanted to appear popular. And one of them was voting against the budget commission, which seven Republicans voted against, even though they co-sponsored the legislation. And one of them was voting for Ben Bernanke, and because they were easy, popular moves.

JIM LEHRER: Is the — is Secretary of the Treasury Geithner now in that same kind of target, where the same — essentially same brand of target that Bernanke was?

MARK SHIELDS: I mean, Sheldon Whitehouse, the senator from Rhode Island, I thought, put it quite well. He said, Bernanke, as a member of the Fed — leadership position in the Fed, wasn’t particularly good at enforcing the fire code. But, once the fire broke out, he was terrific at putting it out.

And I think people are still angry at why the fire happened. And I think that anger, that we saw it this week in the House Oversight Committee.

JIM LEHRER: They really beat up on Geithner.

MARK SHIELDS: They did beat up on Geithner, and Hank Paulson, the former secretary of the treasury.

And, in a sense, we don’t know what happened. I mean, we do know that AIG got $85 billion, and then the companies that had bet on them and taken this crazy bet were reimbursed 100 percent. They didn’t take a haircut or anything, and that — that we don’t know how it happened, but we know the people who did it are prospering, have walked away, and are untouched.

So, I think there is an anger that is still looking for a target.

JIM LEHRER: We do know one thing that happened. We just ran out of time.

Thank you both very much.