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Shields, Brooks: Presidency ‘At Risk’ in Outcome of Health Reform Effort

March 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 rift between the White House and the Supreme Court over President Obama's State of the Union and the ongoing negotiations to pass health care.

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

David, the president is delaying his trip to Asia and Australia in order to get health care reform done. Does he now really have to do it?

DAVID BROOKS: He better, yes.

No, this is sort of a fascinating moment, just for political junkies. First, the stakes are huge. As they say inside the White House these days, we are all in. Sort of the whole fate of the presidency rests on this.

But will they get it passed? And, you know, right now, they — they’re short. That’s why he’s not going. They’re short. And if you look at the House — it’s all in the House — you see these blocs of Democratic congressmen who are against. There’s a group very interested in abortion. Some, in their district, it is just the killer.

Some interested in cost, some reform. So, there are these blocs, some who voted against who probably won’t switch over, some who voted for who now wish they could vote no. And, so, you can logically see, well, they’re not going to get it.

But then Nancy Pelosi is quite good at this. Rahm Emanuel is quite good at this. Barack Obama is pretty smart. You would think they wouldn’t be going ahead unless they thought they had a realistic chance. They wouldn’t risk the whole presidency on this.

And, so, you have to think — it is hard to see how they do it, but they must somehow be having conversations to get that majority. And they must get it down to like five or six, so they are close, and then they can go to those guys and say, are you really going to blow up my presidency?

But it’s — I don’t see how they do it, but I assume they are really good at this, so they must be close. But I know they think they’re going to win by the slimmest of majorities. I don’t see how they do it, but I assume they can.

JIM LEHRER: The presidency is at risk on this? Do you agree with David?

MARK SHIELDS: I do. I don’t think he has any option. I mean, he has spent 14 months. He’s now in the last month, put his entire presidency and himself…

JIM LEHRER: Entire presidency?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I think — I think you have to say that, Jim.

This is the signature item of his presidential agenda. He said that passing this is more important to him than winning a second term. I mean, he is publicly on the record on that. And it is only in the last month that they are all in.

Before that, there was sort of a sense of distance. The president came in with 70 percent approval, and he turned over the writing of this to an institution, on its best day, has 30 percent approval. And so…

JIM LEHRER: You mean the Congress of the United States.

MARK SHIELDS: The Congress.


MARK SHIELDS: We have watched sausage being made for the past 14 months. They want to have some product.

I don’t disagree with David’s assessment. I do think it’s very tough. There are sort of statements of optimism, a little — a little exaggerated optimism on the part of the leadership and — and the White House about being on the cusp of getting the votes, because…

JIM LEHRER: They hope, if they stay — if they stay optimistic, that that means…

MARK SHIELDS: And that you’re joining — if you come over, you are joining a winning side at this point.


MARK SHIELDS: But it is a very, very tough fight.

And Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader, a man not known for his wit, had a great comment yesterday. He was quoting to Tom Foley, the Former Democratic House speaker. And Tom Foley allegedly said to a new member of the House, a Democrat, the opposition is the Republicans. The enemy is the Senate.

And there is great — there’s great skepticism, distrust on the part of the House, institutionally, and Democrats in the House in particular, towards the Senate. They have to jump first. They have to hold hands and jump off the mountain. And they are not sure that the — right now that the Senate is going to be there.

JIM LEHRER: Julie Rovner of NPR was on this program last night, and she said — she said that same thing, David. The mistrust between the House and the Senate is — is enormous. Is it just about health care reform, or does it go beyond that?

DAVID BROOKS: No, it’s historically — if you ask a senator — if you have some — you are just shooting the breeze, you see this thing in the House, what do you make of that? They don’t know what — they don’t pay any attention to that body, and the same in the House. They just don’t pay a lot of attention to each other.

And then there are different interests. But then it has been magnified, I would say, over the past year. And the parliamentarian ruled this week that they have to — Obama actually has to sign the law before they can do the second reconciliation process to make the House happy.

So, the House has to take this uncomfortable vote, and then hope the Senate, after they sign the law and have the signing ceremony, is going to come back and fix it. So, that’s — that’s the element of distrust.

There — there’s a couple of things here I’m really mystified by. After Scott Brown won, the White House said, OK, we’re going to pivot to jobs. But then they didn’t. They — they stuck on with health care. I would love to know how that — how that decision happened.

And the second is, what do you actually offer in — the House members who you are trying to win over? Presumably, you can’t give them special deals, because Ben Nelson and all the other special deals…

JIM LEHRER: Everybody will know about it.

DAVID BROOKS: Everybody will know.


DAVID BROOKS: And it’s now delegitimized.

So, what do you — what do they — you could threaten to take away their committee chairmanships, but that only goes so far.

So, what actually are they offering to win over these people? I don’t see quite what leverage they have.

MARK SHIELDS: You — if you are a great leader, you take them up to the top of the mountain. Then you tell them what they are going to do, and how America is going to be a better place, and how, if we don’t do it, costs are not to going to be contained and fewer and fewer people are going to have health insurance, and it is going to be priced out, and there’s going to be children who get sick and die without coverage.

I mean, you have got to, at some point…

JIM LEHRER: It’s a profile in courage sermon.

MARK SHIELDS: You have got to, at some point, yes, be able to do that.

JIM LEHRER: Follow me.

MARK SHIELDS: And then, about that brother-in-law of yours that doesn’t have a job, he may be an assistant at the Small Business Administration.

MARK SHIELDS: … become a federal judge out of this brother…


Mark, the flap over Chief Justice Roberts and the State of the Union address, there are a couple of sides on this. How would you — where would you come down on that? Is it — or do you believe there are two sides to it? And which side do you come down on, if there are?

MARK SHIELDS: I come down squarely…

JIM LEHRER: Squarely?

MARK SHIELDS: … squarely on both sides.

MARK SHIELDS: I mean, I come down squarely.

I mean, obviously, Chief Justice Roberts, six weeks after the thing happened, decided to bring it back up. He could have ducked the question. I mean, certainly…

JIM LEHRER: He was asked about it by a law student at the University of Alabama.

MARK SHIELDS: That’s right. And he chose to answer it. And…

JIM LEHRER: You mean he had to answer that?

MARK SHIELDS: I mean, he could have seen his colleague Justice Scalia handle the press from time to time and tell them basically to go to hell.

MARK SHIELDS: Justice Roberts is not that sort of a personality, but he could have ducked it and said: I’m not going to discuss this.

There have frequently been tensions between the president and the Supreme Court, very rarely as open as this was. The president was responding, and I think rightly so, to a Supreme Court decision that does — for a court that said it was so respectful and deferential of precedent, did effectively overturn 100 years of precedent on the subject of campaign finance.


But the issue of whether or not the Supreme Court justices should even be there, is what — where this is now, where it has now settled in on…

MARK SHIELDS: That’s right. Yes.

And I guess — I guess, I think they should be there.

JIM LEHRER: Should be there?

MARK SHIELDS: Should be there. I think Justice Roberts is absolutely right about the State of the Union address. It has become a pep rally. We look…

JIM LEHRER: Doesn’t matter who…

MARK SHIELDS: Yes, who jumps up, who doesn’t.

And I think this would be a great opportunity for somebody like President Obama to say: There aren’t going to be any applause lines. This is a serious time. We have 10 percent unemployment. We have a financial crisis in the country. It is a dangerous world. I’m here to give you a State of the Union.

But I think there is a value to have all of the institutions of government there in one room. The only other time it happens is at inauguration, and we really don’t see it there, to have the Supreme Court and the military and ambassadorial corps.

JIM LEHRER: How do you feel about it, David?

DAVID BROOKS: If I were advising the Supreme Court, I would tell them not to show up. I just think it has…

JIM LEHRER: You would tell them not to come?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. I just think it has nothing to do with them anymore. Maybe it never did.

But now that it has become an act of TV theater, I just think they — they look awkward sitting there not applauding. And then, if they get attacked — I thought it was unbecoming at the moment, too. I can see criticizing the decision, with them right in front, with no venue to respond, especially getting it sort of factually inaccurate, as the president did, I thought it was unbecoming to do it.

And I just think there’s a — it a no-win situation, from which you get nothing.

MARK SHIELDS: I don’t know where the president was factually inaccurate. I mean, the controversy is over whether — whether international companies…


MARK SHIELDS: … given the — the foreign companies can contribute to — given the globalization of the American economy and the world economy, rather, the idea that there are discrete institutions that are geographically limited, I mean, I think you are inviting money coming from every quarter.

DAVID BROOKS: I mean, one of the crises we have in this country, the 9,000 crises, is a crisis of authority, of institutions, of faith in institutions.

And the way we build up the faith is, publicly and in a communal fashion, show deference to the wisdom of those institutions. And I just think, while the Supreme Court is sitting there — which is a great institution, by the way — you can criticize — to criticize it in that venue is not the right way to address that…

JIM LEHRER: Just don’t do it at the State of the Union?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. That’s my basic point.

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I think the pep rally aspect of it, but, I mean, if it is the Dred Scott decision, does a president then stand up?

The Supreme Court wasn’t there because presidents didn’t deliver State of the Union addresses then. It was earlier — Woodrow Wilson was the first president to deliver one in person. But I would hope that, when the Dred Scott decision came down, that a president would upbraid the court.

JIM LEHRER: Let’s go to another disagreement…

JIM LEHRER: … the so-called al-Qaida seven. Liz Cheney and her group have criticized some Justice Department lawyers because they once represented some Guantanamo detainees.

Where do you come down on that?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I think the ad, which sort of accused whose values do they have, do they have al-Qaida or Taliban values, I thought that was tremendously unfortunate.

I mean, it’s just part of a long range of corrosive language. And, to be fair to Liz Cheney, if you Google Taliban and Liz Cheney, millions of people have called her a member of the Taliban and made similar charges. But it’s a series of steps away from the, you know, normal way any of us should be talking to each other.

MARK SHIELDS: The idea of the al-Qaida seven, I mean, there are those of us who are old enough to remember the Chicago Seven, when incitement to riot and the seven protesters, militants, whatever you want to call them, disrupted as a matter of course, and it became a famous court case at the time and trial.

I just thought it was more than unfortunate. I thought it was offensive. And I thought it was, frankly, un-American, in the true sense of the word.

JIM LEHRER: Un-American?

MARK SHIELDS: Un-American in the true sense of the word. I mean, that — we — that is a great American tradition.

Lindsey Graham, the Republican senator from South Carolina, defended it very well. He said: I owe it to my country and to the legal system in my country to be sure that everybody gets a good defense, the best defense possible.

JIM LEHRER: David, in fact, a lot of the hot words about this whole dispute has been among conservatives, between conservatives.


JIM LEHRER: How do you read that?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I mean, a lot of people who like Liz Cheney and my friend Bill Kristol, who was also involved, thought this was a step over the line.

And they were — they agreed with them on the principle of the thing or on the substance, which is that they thought discussion should take place in a certain respectable venue, showing respect, and that this ad stepped over the line. So, there has been a fair bit of criticism from fellow conservatives toward this.

But, again, I would say, if you look at the words that were hurled at Dick Cheney, who I am no fan of, but, believe me, he has been the subject of calumnies worse. And maybe that was part of the emotional…

MARK SHIELDS: And these were people — these were people who were practicing their profession as lawyers. They weren’t candidates for high national office.

I mean, when somebody does run for high national office, they come to expect this. When somebody volunteers his or her time in the fulfillment of what is the American constitutional dream, to be upbraided and attacked in a paid television advertising, to me, is unforgivable.

DAVID BROOKS: Well, if are you calling people evil, and members of the Taliban, or members of al-Qaida, or members of evil conspiracies, that is the corrosive factor here, who — regardless of who you are talking to, which public servant you are talking to. There’s ways to talk and there’s ways not to talk.

JIM LEHRER: I have bad news. I was about to ask you about the Eric Massa case, but we’re out of time.

Thank you both very much.

DAVID BROOKS: A ticklish subject.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes, it’s a ticklish subject.