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Shields and Brooks on Dwindling Civility in Congress

February 19, 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 Sen. Evan Bayh's decision not to seek re-election and the role of the CPAC summit in selecting the GOP's national candidates.

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

Mark, it is incredible to see it in such detail, isn’t it?

MARK SHIELDS: It was a remarkable piece. Those of us who grew up on war from the back lot of paramount with John Wayne in it, I mean, the thing that impressed me the most was not — not simply living, as they do, with death at almost virtually every step, but then, 15 hours later, and they are still there, I mean, and they are still doing the same.

It was a remarkable piece of reporting, and just, I thought, as accurate a portrayal of what these men are subjected to and subject themselves to every day.

JIM LEHRER: And the way the leadership talk about what the mission was, David.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, that actually struck me very forcefully, how the COIN mentality, the counterinsurgency mentality, has permeated everything they do, so they talk about population protection.

And then you actually get to see a shura there being organized. And so, they — it is clear they have made a mental turn from gung-ho, let’s kill a lot of bad guys, and then leave and kill some more bad guys, to actually clear, hold, and build, which is what the Petraeus model and the McChrystal model is all about.

JIM LEHRER: As the colonel said to the troops, it is not about the Taliban.

DAVID BROOKS: Right. It really is about the governor coming in and offering blankets.


All right, back to other matters. Evan Bayh’s decision to leave the United States Senate, do you buy his view of the Senate, in other words, what he said the reason was, why he was leaving?

MARK SHIELDS: I have no reason not to buy his view, Jim. I admire anybody who runs for office. It’s a very personal decision. And the decision not to run is equally personal.

I think, in Evan Bayh’s case, I — I don’t think it’s a question of bipartisanship, as much as it is there — every year, “Fortune” magazine lists the 100 best places to work. The Container Store and Smucker’s jams, and places like that are always listed.

Nobody is listing the United States Senate. I mean, it is not a positive work environment. And there is a lack of civility. There really is. And one of the great suggestions that was made, I think, by Norm Ornstein, the political scientist who has appeared on this show, was that the Congress be in, in three weeks in a row, Monday through Friday, first thing in the morning until late at night Friday, and that they are here, and then they take a week off.

And that would force them to bring their families here. If you are — if I see you with your child at a soccer game, it is tougher for me to demonize you on Monday.

And I just think, somehow, there’s got to — before we ever get to, you know, collegiality again, there has got to be civility. And I think civility come with just getting to know each other.


Now, you talked to Bayh, what, yesterday, right?

DAVID BROOKS: Yesterday, for a good long while.


DAVID BROOKS: I have known him. I speak to him a fair bit.


DAVID BROOKS: And I guess the couple things he talked about, first of all, he emphasized that he was a governor. And among the senators, there are a group of people who were governors.

JIM LEHRER: Governor of Indiana before he went to the Senate.



DAVID BROOKS: And they tend to have a different perspective, because they actually have experience with making decisions and then seeing the consequences of that decision.

And he said — you know, and he would talk about Lamar Alexander, who was governor of Tennessee, George Voinovich, who was governor of Ohio. And then you get to the Senate and you never see the consequences of any decision.

And so I think he felt a little frustrated that nothing was actually getting done. And then, to echo Mark’s point, one of the things he talked was that he has said he has been there 12 years — or will have been there 12 years. He said exactly twice in that period of time all the senators have gotten together to talk about policy.

There was the Clinton impeachment, and then there was a couple weeks after 9/11. They met at the Senate Dining Room. And that was it, twice.

And so he thought those sessions were actually fantastic sessions. They actually talked about things. And they had exchanges. And we talked about the Tuesday policy lunches. On Tuesday, the two parties meet separately. And these lunches are really designed to polarize things, because they give you the message.

And the leadership, here is what you’re going to say all week. He has proposed, once a month, they actually get together as a body and have a lunch.

JIM LEHRER: The whole Senate?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. A Republican would say something, and they would have a presentation from a Democrat, and then they could all talk and ask questions about it. And those were a couple things he was thinking about.

So, I really do think, as Mark said, it was genuinely the work environment. I don’t think he was afraid of not being reelected or anything like that.

MARK SHIELDS: And one thing, Jim. The way he did it was ill-becoming of his career. He established the Democratic Party in Indiana, brought it back from its doldrums, twice elected governor, elected secretary of state, and became virtually unbeatable.

But he pulled out two days before filing, the filing date. That meant the Democrats were deprived of a candidate in the May 4 primary. That means the voters of Indiana are deprived of choosing a Democratic nominee for the United States Senate.

So, if there is a Democratic nominee for the United States Senate, he will have been picked — or she — he, most likely, Brad Ellsworth — will have been picked in a backroom deal. And it may very well be challenged in the courts, legitimately, by Republicans.

So, you put your own party and your own vote at an enormous disadvantage. I thought it was a reckless act on his part.

DAVID BROOKS: And I — just on that…


DAVID BROOKS: … one of the things, he said, first, whether it was a surprise in Washington, he told me he had told Harry Reid weeks ago that he wasn’t sure he was going to run again and he wasn’t sure he was happy.

DAVID BROOKS: Now, as to the question of when he announces it — and this, he did — we did not talk about. He didn’t tell me this.

But other people have told me, and I actually have seen it reported elsewhere, that the Indiana Democratic Party wanted this. They did not want to have a primary, because it would be divisive and expensive and all the rest. They wanted to go in with a clear candidate, who apparently they are going to get, this Indiana…

JIM LEHRER: Congressman Ellsworth, right.

DAVID BROOKS: Congressman Ellsworth.


DAVID BROOKS: And according to what I have heard from others, this is the way the party wanted it, because they didn’t want that primary fight.

MARK SHIELDS: That — that is one interpretation. That is not the interpretation held by Democrats I have talked to, both in Indiana and here, who are really — he had been saying for a year he wasn’t sure he was going to run, but he had accumulated $13 million, and he did have a 20-point lead in the polls.

And the idea of doing it then really did deprive anybody else of even thinking about a primary.

JIM LEHRER: David, what is your reading of the importance of this — the Conservative Political Action Committee having its meeting the last couple of days, that more — more people have come than ever before, 10,000, the biggest group? And they have had — they have heard from anybody.


JIM LEHRER: What is going on?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, it’s in some ways — in some ways emblematic of what is happening.

On the one hand — I have gone over the years. I didn’t go this year. But they — they were the fringe, to be honest. They were the fringe of the conservative movement. And when Reagan was in office, I remember when they asked Reagan if he would go, and there were internal debates in the Reagan administration. He didn’t really want to go. There were a lot of…

JIM LEHRER: But he went over 20 times, yes.

DAVID BROOKS: He would go. He would go, but there was…


DAVID BROOKS: It wasn’t the core of the Republican Party. And it wasn’t the core of the conservative movement.

This was more — much more conservative, more — a lot of Chappaquiddick bumper stickers and things like that. And — but now it has in some ways, judging by today’s events, surpassed the old institutions which were the core of the conservative movement.

And it has forced everybody to mimic a lot of the rhetoric that has long been a staple of CPAC. And, so, on the one hand, it shows the tremendous vitality, as more people come in. On the other hand, it does show the movement moving away from some of these old institutions to a more, I don’t know, flamboyant or pungent — pungent movement.

JIM LEHRER: Interesting word.

DAVID BROOKS: The group got — rose to its loudest applause, apparently, when Vice President — former Vice President Cheney predicted that Barack Obama is going to be a one-term president.

MARK SHIELDS: I don’t think the White House is losing a lot of sleep over Dick Cheney’s credentials as a clairvoyant. This is a man who, in 2002, told us the American troops would be welcomed as liberators in Iraq, 2005, they were in the last throes of the insurgency.

So, his track record is somewhat flawed.

I think — I agree with David on his description of CPAC. It used to be a trade show for every conspiracy theory in the world, I mean, including the Flat Earth Society and the John Birches.

And this turnout, Jim, I think, shows the energy. I think it also shows that the Republican Party has become a more homogeneous, conservative party. The fact — it’s almost like the first primary. It’s before Iowa and New Hampshire. Presidential candidates who used to debate whether they would even show up there or have a representative now are clamoring to be seen there.

And I think that’s — Tom Davis, the former Republican chairman of the Campaign Committee, House Campaign Committee, said he’s fearful that Republicans could win in 2010 and learn nothing, that they don’t have — there is no self-examination, no self-introspection involved about what happened to the party and why they lost in 2006 and 2008; they will win in 2010 because they are the alternative, and they will be in terrible shape for 2012.

JIM LEHRER: But, that said, isn’t it right to say, David, at this point, whatever — whatever is going on there, the conservatives feel they have got wind behind them?

DAVID BROOKS: Absolutely.

JIM LEHRER: And it’s not only this, but there’s the Tea Party. There’s the popularity of Sarah Palin and all these things.

DAVID BROOKS: Right. Right.

And there’s the polls, which is much broader than the Tea Party or the CPAC types. But, you know, there’s the races in Virginia and Massachusetts and New Jersey. And then there’s just — there’s — I mean, I think, if the election were held right now, the Republican would probably pick up eight Senate seats. I don’t think they would get the 10 they need, but that is right now.

And that is the thing I would warn about what Dick Cheney said. There’s a long way to go before November. And maybe things won’t change, but the odds are, something big will happen between now and then. And I would say the Republicans are getting a little ahead of themselves.

MARK SHIELDS: In an off-year election, midterm election, Jim, it is all about turnout — turnout, turnout, turnout.

And all the energy, all the enthusiasm, all the intensity now is on the Republican side. And the Democrats, there’s a sense of anomie, almost dispiritedness, I would say, right now among Democrats, anxiety, certainly.

And, you know, that’s — that’s — we’re not looking at a presidential-election-level turnout. It’s a question of who shows up. And people, based on their interest and their passion and their intensity, turn out to vote.

JIM LEHRER: Meanwhile, the president created a — quote — “bipartisan commission” on the deficit, appointed Alan Simpson, former Republican senator, and Erskine Bowles, former White House chief of staff in the Clinton administration, Democrat, obviously, to — to run it.

What is going to happen? Is it something that is going to make things — is it going to make something happen?

DAVID BROOKS: I wouldn’t bet the house that they will actually reach an agreement that both parties will then bow down to.

Nonetheless, I think it is a good idea and a good step. I — you know, what has to happen is the Republicans have to agree to cut taxes — I mean, to raise taxes, and the Democrats have to agree to cut middle-class subsidies. That’s what has to happen. Neither side wants to move off that.

And I don’t think either side is going to move off that over the next eight months. And I used to think the commission was a clever idea to get around democracy and to pass that just with a bunch of eight people in a room. I no longer believe that is really possible.

But it could begin a debate, a consciousness-raising debate in the country. And it won’t get us all with the way there. But if you actually can see some movement within a commission, it could get the country thinking. And, so, it would be a step along which will be a long road.

MARK SHIELDS: Two — two men heading it, neither of whom is angling for political position, they are both, if anything, committed to their legacy, their grandchildren. They are both grandfathers, as I said, Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson. And they are both serious people, who have shown an ability and capacity in their careers to reach across the aisle to each other, which they are doing here.

And they are. They are really angering the base of both their parties by doing this.

One of the things about it — and they will be skewered. Jim, you can be a Republican now and be for gay rights in certain districts. You can be pro-choice and be a Republican. You can even be critical of the military occasionally.

You cannot be for tax increases. I mean, that is…

JIM LEHRER: Do agree with that, David?

DAVID BROOKS: I mean, the short answer is yes.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes. And I just — I mean, that’s really the — and David’s right about the entitlements, because Democrats have trotted that old number out. They want to dismantle Social Security. They want grandma to freeze out in the snowbank. That is what the Republicans do.

And, so, it is really going to take — it’s going to take great leadership. And I wish them well, because it is an important mission.

JIM LEHRER: I would say that — that one thing that the coming of Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles is going to do is bring a little humor to things. Did you see that interview last night that Judy did with Simpson and Bowles?


MARK SHIELDS: Rush babe is coming after him, he said. “Rush babe will be after me.”


OK, thank you all very much.

MARK SHIELDS: Thank you.

DAVID BROOKS: Thank you.