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Shields and Brooks on Partisanship and Politics in Washington

February 12, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Columnists Mark Shields and David Brooks sort through the top political stories of the past week, including the state of partisan politics in Washington, the issues driving voter anger, and what President Obama's slipping approval rating means for his legislative agenda.
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JIM LEHRER: And to the analysis of Shields and Brooks, syndicated columnist Mark Shields, New York Times columnist David Brooks.

JIM LEHRER: David, how do you read these new polls on people not going really strong for the government right now?

DAVID BROOKS: It is the — it’s like an emotion. It like a character, it is like an issue in the country, to me, the dominant issue, because, if you have these incredibly high levels of distrust, you can’t do anything big. The country will not trust you to take a leap of faith.

I have said before in years past on this show that the single biggest poll number in American history is, do you trust government to do the right thing most of the time? Between 1932 and ’64, you had high levels, 70, 80 percent. So, people would trust Washington, to take that leap of faith.

But, starting about Vietnam-Watergate era, it went down. And now we are about 17 percent, 19 percent, 23 percent, near or at historic lows. And that’s just a gigantic, climactic force, which sort of paralyzing Washington. At the same time, people want change.

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

Mark, do you — do you agree with those who say that the heart of this right now, at least, is the economy, 10 percent unemployment and all the rest?

MARK SHIELDS: Oh, I think the economy drives it, Jim. I think the biggest concern that voters express is, they want jobs. They want the government to do something about jobs. And they are concerned about unemployment and the economy in general. Those override everything else.

JIM LEHRER: But, to pick up on David’s point — he cited Watergate and Vietnam — those were actions where — where people did things wrong. There is no corruption attached to this downside in the polls, in terms — it is a governing problem, right?

MARK SHIELDS: No, it really is, and David is right. I mean, we were talking, in the early to mid-’60s, right up until Vietnam started to go sour and go south, 65 percent, 70 percent, 75 percent of Americans having confidence, not only in their own future, but in the government, to do what is right, and Vietnam and the dissembling and lying and deceit, deception on that, followed by Watergate.

But this is — this is sort of a new departure, and, really, an unnerving one, Jim, because, you point out, there isn’t any scandal. There isn’t any corruption. There isn’t any great deception that the government has been guilty of or proven guilty of. And it’s just — it’s just the failure of the economy.

We have been 27 years, and I think 28 years, if one thinks about it, since 1982, with really the bump in the early 90s, with George, the first George Bush, we have had low unemployment and low inflation. And this is — this is, you know, a major, major departure.

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

DAVID BROOKS: It could, though, that the era between ’32 and ’65 was the departure…

JIM LEHRER: Ah.

DAVID BROOKS: … that Americans through the 19th century and the 18th century were extremely skeptical of government, and then we had like a 50-year period, mostly because of Franklin Roosevelt, where people invested trust in government, and that was the exceptional period, and now we are back to a norm.

But then, if you even take a smaller time frame, what have we seen? We have seen Americans — we have seen Washington try to solve Social Security reform, immigration, probably health care reform. It’s been one failure after another. And then there’s been just the behavior we have up here, which is dysfunctional.

And then, finally — and this is a little heterodox — I think, as we pass more transparency legislation, trust in government has gotten worse.

JIM LEHRER: What do you mean? The more we know — because people know what is going on.

DAVID BROOKS: Right.

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I mean, I have a friend, Bill Galston, who is at the Brookings Institution, says…

JIM LEHRER: Worked in the Clinton White House.

DAVID BROOKS: Worked — Clinton domestic policy adviser.

He has a line that government should be shrouded for the same reason middle-aged people should wear clothing, that you just don’t want to see it, necessarily.

DAVID BROOKS: And I think, as people have seen it more closely, because of transparency and because of TV, they: Oh, I don’t like that very much.

JIM LEHRER: Yes, go ahead, Mark. Yes.

MARK SHIELDS: I would just add one thing to it, Jim.

JIM LEHRER: Sure.

MARK SHIELDS: And it’s not a dissent. I think it is an addendum.

And that is that we have had now a series of presidential candidates, both liberal and conservative, Democrat and Republican, who have won the presidency by running hard against Washington. Certainly, Bill Clinton called Washington brain-dead, and said that, you know, it couldn’t function, endearing himself to many members of Congress when he said that as a candidate.

MARK SHIELDS: And then George W. Bush, you know, talked about Washington just being sort of this place that didn’t make any sense, and we had to bring the common sense of Austin, Texas, to it.

And, certainly, President Obama, as a candidate, you know, was — was critical of Washington. There’s been nobody to celebrate the successes of our government, whether it is taking the fear out of old age for people, providing — taking one-third of the people over the age of 65 out of poverty, which it has done through Medicare and Social Security, whether it is saving the Great Lakes or taking lead out of the air.

There’s — there is — nobody seems to have a stake in celebrating the successes that we have had as a people, coming over — overcoming racial segregation remarkably well as a people. I mean, we have had some great achievements, but there has been very little celebration of those successes.

JIM LEHRER: OK.

David, how do you — looking at these polls and picking up on something that Andy said, how do you explain the fact that, while the government generally, and Congress specifically, is falling with the public — some of these folks saying, I don’t want my member of Congress, my senator anymore, period — I don’t care if he is a Republican or a Democrat — but President Obama’s approval rating is staying pretty fairly steady.

DAVID BROOKS: Partly because he has risen above Washington, to some degree, partially because people…

JIM LEHRER: No, but he has been successful in doing that…

DAVID BROOKS: You know, even when he went to talk to the Republicans, if you remember, a couple Fridays ago, he sort of said, you know, you guys have to work together.

I mean, one of the big losers in that meeting was Nancy Pelosi. And he has sort of risen above Washington as a reasonable figure. And I think people genuinely like the fact that he seems intelligent. He seems to have reached out to Republicans much more than Republicans have reached out backwards.

So, there still is — you know, he doesn’t have the approval rating he had a year ago. It has fallen to 46 to 50 percent. But it is still decent. And I think it is just a factor that he seems reasonable, he seems intelligent. He doesn’t seem caught up in a lot of the partisanship that the rest of the place is caught up in.

JIM LEHRER: His fellow Democrats, as well as his opposing Republicans.

DAVID BROOKS: Exactly. Exactly.

JIM LEHRER: Do you read it the same way, Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: I don’t, Jim.

JIM LEHRER: You don’t?

MARK SHIELDS: I think — in fact, I think — I haven’t run into anybody who thought the casualty at the Baltimore meeting was Nancy Pelosi. It was the House Republicans. I mean, President Obama just dominated them.

And his command of facts and information and rebuttal of their arguments was really quite telling. But I think that one of the reasons that he continues to remain are those personal qualities that people do identify. They do like him. And they do see his success. They are rooting for him. They want him to succeed.

I mean, they don’t want, as Jim DeMint, the senator from South Carolina, said, this would be his Waterloo and the end of his presidency if health care goes down — people may be opposed to health care, but they don’t want this president to fail. They don’t want the country to fail.

They identify, I think, his presidency. And I think, in that sense, he is seen as a person of, not only considerable ability, but good motives and good intentions.

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I agree with that.

I would say, though, for him is, he has got to take this trust issue and realize it’s a trust — he needs a trust agenda. You have got to have an economic agenda, health agenda. But trust is an issue to — which has to be addressed directly by the president, which I think is part behavioral, showing you can make real, not Kabuki bipartisanship, but actual bipartisanship, but, second, passing some small bills along the way to show people that Washington can actually do stuff now to begin to restore that level of trust, because, if you don’t do that, the larger issues just are going to be very hard to address.

JIM LEHRER: How — it’s a small thing in some ways, but how large was the issue, for instance, of the Alabama Republican Senator Shelby, when he put an arbitrary hold on 70 Obama appointees? And what — what’s the message of that sort of stuff?

DAVID BROOKS: What boggles the mind now is, we all now acknowledge the tremendous hostility to Washington and the standard operating procedure here. And, yet, people in Washington are still behaving in the same old ways. Shelby behaving and really stopping the legislative process for one man’s pork, that’s one thing.

JIM LEHRER: There were two projects in Alabama that he wanted funded, right.

DAVID BROOKS: Right. Yes.

And, then, frankly, we have this jobs bill where you had a bipartisan compromise between and Grassley and Baucus. And it was great. I guess it was bipartisan. But, if you actually looked at what was in the compromise, that, too, was filled with pork, which had nothing to do with job creation. That was politics as usual.

And then that wasn’t even good enough. Harry Reid came over and said, no, I don’t want a bipartisan agreement. I want something a little more partisan.

So, we had bad bipartisanship replaced by partisanship. And, so, what you see day by day here is why people are angry, because the ingrained habits of behavior are still going on.

JIM LEHRER: Mark, before we go, two well-known members of the House of Representatives, one present and one past, died this week, Jack Murtha, for one, from Pennsylvania.

You knew him very well. What are your thoughts about him? What do you think his legacy should be or will be?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, Jim, all of us in this business try to be objective. None of us can be, but we try to be fair.

And I admit right up front I liked and admired Jack Murtha. He was a Marine in the best sense. He’s somebody who left college and a college deferment to enlist in Korea at the age of 19. And, then, at the age of 33, with three children, exempt from having served, he returned to Vietnam, where he was awarded two Purple Hearts and a Bronze Star. I mean, he walked the walk and talked the talk.

He always was somebody who followed that dictum and that maxim of — every Marine officer is inculcated with, and that is, you take care of your people. Officers eat last.

MARK SHIELDS: And he took care of his people. And, in the field, he would be eating the E-4s, the noncoms. He wanted to find out how their food was. He wanted to find out how they were treated, how their equipment was, how their protection was.

And he took care of his people back home in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, an economically troubled place.

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

MARK SHIELDS: And, listen, he got every buck he could, public and private, in there. He was no plaster saint. But I’ll tell you, every single week, he was at Bethesda Naval Hospital, he was at Walter Reed, visiting, comforting, consoling, and encouraging wounded warriors. And he’s just that kind of a guy. He will be missed.

JIM LEHRER: But, David, he had another — he had a king of pork…

DAVID BROOKS: I mean, I didn’t know him, but he — he existed at the nexus between pork and lobbyists.

And that — he was part of the process, and he provide billions, maybe trillions, of dollars to Johnstown, but he did it through the process that has created the earmarks, the culture of pork that we have in Washington, which I think is part of the problem.

And then the second thing — and this is a simply policy matter — he became — made a big stir in 2005 calling for withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq. I thought, at that time, that was a mistaken policy. And I think history has proven that it would have been a mistake to…

JIM LEHRER: The other was Charlie Wilson of East Texas.

JIM LEHRER: We have got to go. We have got to go, Mark.

MARK SHIELDS: Excuse me.

JIM LEHRER: And I’m sorry we didn’t have time to talk.

I happened to know him. I covered him in the Texas Senate many, many years ago, when he — and then when he first came to the House. They called him “Good Time Charlie.” He had a big role helping the Afghans fight the Russians years ago. He was a Naval Academy graduate.

I covered him when he was a kid — when he was a kid senator and I was a kid reporter.

Thank you both very much.