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Shields and Brooks Assess Power Shift in Congress

February 5, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Columnists Mark Shields and David Brooks sort through the top stories of the past week, including a new power dynamic in the Senate, and efforts to repeal the "don't ask, don't tell" policy.

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

Mark, Scott Brown has finally officially become the 41st Republican senator. How much is it going to matter?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, it’s going to matter a lot to Republicans, because the reason he came in early — he was supposed to come in next week — was that the National Labor Relations Board has been stymied for years now, because there’s only two members on it. It requires three for a quorum.

And, so, this serves very well the purposes of the American business, who haven’t had a worker complaint acted upon. The Senate Labor Committee reported out the nominee, Craig Becker, who is a labor-friendly, labor — union-friendly, worker-friendly nominee. And he’s going to be voted upon.

And Mitch McConnell and the Chamber of Commerce said, Scott, come on down. And down he came. But I can tell you this. It is…

JIM LEHRER: So, are there going to be other ramifications?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, the ramifications, I think, are apparent already. There’s panic in the Democratic ranks.

First of all, they lost Massachusetts. And that just makes everybody vulnerable, everybody who is up, facing reelection. Secondly, the panic is, there’s a loss of confidence in the White House political operation that they didn’t see it coming, that they in no way anticipated, and, once it was coming, didn’t act upon it.

So, there’s an anxiety. Are we all in trouble? A vulnerability. I think that’s the principal emotion that’s dominating the Democratic side.

JIM LEHRER: On the Democratic. But, David, there are some who say this is a good thing, because it’s going to cause everybody on both sides to kind of get together, because, if they don’t get together, there isn’t going to be any governing.

DAVID BROOKS: Right. Yes. Well, some people say it’s a good thing. And some people are spinning you. It’s not a good thing.

There are some people who say — some Democrats who say, well, we never really had 60 votes anyway. This just makes it obvious. So, I guess that point is fair enough.

But I’m struck by there are sort of like three climatic moves one detected, especially Thursday, yesterday. The Republicans are just excited. The Republicans on the Hill there, all the prospective House candidates are arriving on the Hill to talk through how they’re going to run in November. And they’re coming out of the woodwork.

Dan Coats in Indiana, who is going to run in the Senate, coming out of the woodwork, a former senator, will challenge Evan Bayh, very good candidate. So, the Republicans just feel: The wind is at our backs. Let’s just keep it going, keep it going.

And, then, on the congressional Democrats, you have got, as Mark described, these degrees of panic. So, you had Al Franken from Minnesota attacking David Axelrod this week. You had Blanche Lincoln attacking — or criticizing President Obama this week for not being liberal or not being conservative or different.

And, then, on the — the White House side, there, I detect sort of an atmosphere of serenity, there, constancy, just keep on keeping on. They’re not really fighting amongst themselves. They’re not really changing. They’re not going to switch into some Clintonite mode. They are just keeping on.

JIM LEHRER: Keeping on?

DAVID BROOKS: So, there are these three different groups.

MARK SHIELDS: Oh, excuse me. Go ahead.

JIM LEHRER: Yes. I was just going to say, does that mean that — that President Obama and his folks now feel they’re kind of off the hook now, because they can blame a lot of the Republican no-voting on them, obviously, and take the heat off themselves? Is that what’s going on here?

MARK SHIELDS: That may be part of it. I think a major element in the serenity David describes is the calendar. The — every House member is up every two years. They’re all facing the voters’ verdict this November.

The president has a four-year term and a four-year cycle. I would remind viewers of President Reagan, who lost 26 seats in his first midterm, then got reelected two years later. Bill Clinton lost 53 seats in his midterm, then got reelected.

So, the serenity is partly induced by the fact that, look, it may be rough patch right now. We’re not on the ballot this November. The other people are.


I also think there’s — well, it’s partly that. I think, also, to their credit, they’re not fighting. They’re not stabbing each other in the back in the White House. There seems to be still general cohesion. But I also think they don’t get it as much members of Congress do. I think members of Congress are more directly connected to the electorate.

And so the tide that is out there, which I think is a very powerful tide and should never be underestimated, I don’t quite think they in the White House understand how unusual political circumstances we are now in.

JIM LEHRER: Now, the coming of Scott Brown brings up another thing, which has brought a huge focus to the 41 votes, the supermajority, the 60 votes required to get anything through Congress. How do you — where do you come down on that?

DAVID BROOKS: I think, as a matter of culture, if we had a culture of bipartisanship, I think the need for 60 votes, the filibuster, would be invoked less frequently. We could go back to that period. And I would like to see do that.

I’m not sure I would like to see a legislative change totally eliminated. You know, Republicans tried when they were in office, and now a lot of Democrats are talking about it, in part because I do think the 60 votes, A, represents some caution in our government, and, two, it forces some level of bipartisanship.

And, in general, over the long haul, I think that’s generally healthy, so worth tolerating the inconvenience that the party in power always feel, to get that 60 votes.

JIM LEHRER: You have a filibuster position, Mark?


JIM LEHRER: Well, what is it?

MARK SHIELDS: Vice President Biden, I thought, made a good point when he said losing the — putting as rosy a scenario as he could on the result — that losing the 60th vote was really a sense of relief, because you were expected to pass things when you had 60.

JIM LEHRER: That’s part of the serenity, you mean.

MARK SHIELDS: It’s a little bit of the serenity, but there’s a certain reality, in the sense now that there is a responsibility on the other side as well, because, when you have the 60, there’s a sense that, well, we can do it. We don’t have to pay attention to the other side. And the other side is therefore just not only simply ignored, but they’re alleviated of — lifted of any responsibility.

I do think, Jim, that I’m not against breaking the 60. I do think we have to return to the concept of constitutional majority. And that’s 51 senators. I mean, George Bush wouldn’t have passed his tax cuts without using 51 senators. They bypassed the 60. They went directly to voting through what they call a reconciliation. But it was a constitutional majority.

Ronald Reagan’s tax cuts wouldn’t have been passed. The Medicare provisions under George Bush and the pharmaceutical drugs wouldn’t have been passed, except with 51 votes, 53 votes, by going — bypassing the 60.

I think it’s time for the majority, the 59, to use the Constitution and vote the constitutional majority, say there are important things that have to be done in this country. I’m sorry. We’re not going to stand on the formality of the 60.

But we saw the spirit of bipartisanship already today, when Dick Shelby, Richard Shelby, the Republican senator from Alabama, put a hold on 70 nominees of the administration who are on the executive calendar waiting to be confirmed. Why? Because the air-to-air tanker contract for Mobile, Alabama, has not — been held up by the Pentagon. Some people call that an earmark. But, I mean, that’s the spirit of bipartisanship that you’re seeing at this point.


DAVID BROOKS: Well, I mean, that’s the nature of the Senate, that one person can…

JIM LEHRER: Can do this.

DAVID BROOKS: … can do this. And that’s always been the case.

And the Senate is famously — What’s the phrase? — the saucer where the milk cools. I’m sort of messing that up. But the idea was, things rush through, and then things cool down in the Senate. And that’s what our founders wanted.

They wanted a government in which it was extremely difficult to do stuff. And it’s become extra difficult because of the polarization. But, to me, that — it’s the polarization that’s a problem, not the Constitution. And the polarization has caused us to resort to the 60 much more often than necessary. But unless you actually get the parties actually to work together to some degree, the rules will — changing the rules will not help.

JIM LEHRER: Mark, also, the secretary of defense, Robert Gates, and Admiral Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, really made news this week with their statement saying it’s time to move on from don’t ask, don’t tell in the military.

What do you think about it?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I was — I was really struck by Admiral Mullen’s words. He said: As a Naval officer since 1968, I have served with gay service members who have served their country well. I have known that. And I have come to the conclusion that this is unacceptable, to exclude people and to isolate them on the basis of their sexual orientation.

I think, in this case, Jim, people have compared it to race and Harry Truman in 1948. In that case, the president and the military were reading society. I mean, to desegregate a major American institution in 1948 was really rather remarkable.

JIM LEHRER: And it came out of nowhere. He did it on his own.

MARK SHIELDS: Came out of nowhere.


MARK SHIELDS: But it was an historic act.


MARK SHIELDS: I think now — and I was just looking this morning. In 19887, the Pew poll asked, do you think a local school board has the right to fire a teacher who is a known homosexual? Fifty-one percent of Americans said that they thought it did, just on that basis alone.

Twenty years later, that had dropped to 28 percent. And it’s dropped even more, you can be sure, today, now three years later, because it’s a generational thing. I think, in this case, the military is basically following society and its lead.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree with that?

DAVID BROOKS: I agree. I support the move.

And I also support the way they have done it. And they have done it in a very slow way. It’s about a — we’re going to study it. We’re going to try to reconcile it. And, sometimes, you put something into a study when you want to kill it.

But I think, in this case, for a lot of us who would like to see it done faster, we’re not in the military. We can’t — it would be a mistake to try to impose this from outside on to that institution. I think it’s important to let that institution get used to the idea. And I think there’s — if there continues to be leadership to the top, you will get progress without a rejection or a recoil, which would come if you tried to push it too quickly.

So, I think the way they’re doing it is actually quite wise.

JIM LEHRER: Well, what about the idea here — it was President Obama who first mentioned this in a very direct way his State of the Union address just a few days ago. And, now, suddenly, the secretary of defense says, yes, that’s fine, that’s fine.


JIM LEHRER: And the chairman of the Joint Chiefs says, OK, yes. And the Republicans are saying, oh, they’re just being ordered to do this by the president.

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I don’t think Gates and Mullen will necessarily be ordered. Colin Powell, in his day — he’s now changed his mind, but, in his day, he said, no, I’m not ready for this.

And, so, I think — I suspect there are a lot of people, especially at the top of the military, who have shifted. And I suspect a lot of people in the — in privates have shifted, just as society has shifted.

Nonetheless, I do think the pace they’re going at, while very slow, is correct.

JIM LEHRER: Of course, one of the…

MARK SHIELDS: General Jim Jones…

JIM LEHRER: Sure. Go ahead.

MARK SHIELDS: … the former commandant of the Marine Corps and national security adviser to the president, cautioned him last year not to do it in a hurry, to take the time.

JIM LEHRER: Take his time.

MARK SHIELDS: And Admiral Mullen was very frank. He said he spent the last year figuring out how to do it, how to deal with the problems. This didn’t come as a surprise to him. He had come to this conviction himself.

JIM LEHRER: One of the most outspoken Republican senators about this, and criticizing Gates and Mullen to his — to his face, of course, was Senator John McCain.

How do you read what’s going on with John McCain right now?

MARK SHIELDS: There’s two things at work. First of all, when anybody runs for president, there’s a burst of pride in the home state voters. And when that candidate loses, as most candidates for presidents do…

JIM LEHRER: Fifty percent of them usually…

MARK SHIELDS: Like 95 percent do.

MARK SHIELDS: And the — but they turn and they say, you know, we gave you a hell of a job as a United States senator. What were you doing running for president?

So, McCain has got that going against him in Arizona. But, in addition to that, he — he has problems. He’s being challenged on his right by J.D. Hayworth, the former Republican conservative congressman from the state, anti-immigration, or harsh on immigration, however you want to put it, going after McCain, going after — going after McCain as well on his opposition to George Bush’s tax cuts in the previous administration.

So, John McCain, and the thing that really surprised me the most was, he was a supporter of the Gregg-Conrad budget commission to bring down the deficit, which required the members to consider openly both tax cuts and entitlement cuts. I mean, it was the tough tonic. He was a sponsor of it, and he ended up voting against it.

And the only explanation that even people who love John McCain can give at this point is — is that the fear of being considered soft on taxes, on tax increases, made him vulnerable in the primary. And I think, for that reason, he deserted a position he had held.

JIM LEHRER: How do you read it?

DAVID BROOKS: There’s definitely been a series of shifts. That’s campaign finance, global warming, this, the gays in the military. And there’s that element. And I can’t psychoanalyze McCain.

I think there’s also a great deal of anger at the military — or — I mean — excuse me — at the media, where he was a darling and felt was disloyal to him in the campaign, great deal of anger at President Obama, who he thinks is a bad president. And, so, I think there’s a lot else going on that has to do with running for president, losing, that has shifted him in a more conservative direction, whether it’s an intellectual shift, an emotional shift, or a political shift caused by J.D. Hayworth.

All those things probably play some role in what has been a shift to the right for John McCain.

JIM LEHRER: He just seems — does he seem to you to be a little more angry than he has been — he has been in the past?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. I mean, I would say, when he came back after he had won (sic), he was energized. And, if you remember the stimulus debate, he was very outspoken on that. And he’s been very outspoken in the Senate.

But I guess, among fellow senators, they would say he’s become angrier. No one loses a presidential election and is unaffected by it. Everyone is affected by it in some way.

JIM LEHRER: OK. Thank you very much, both of you.