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Shields and Brooks Tackle the Aftermath of Health Reform

March 26, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Columnists Mark Shields and David Brooks sort through the top political stories of the week, including the passage of health care reform and how it may shape the political landscape looking toward the midterm elections.
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JIM LEHRER: And finally tonight, the analysis of Shields and Brooks, syndicated columnist Mark Shields, New York Times columnist David Brooks.

David, health care reform is now the law of the land. What else is it?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I will tell you one thing it is. It has changed the psychology of the White House.

I mean, you have to remember what it was like for them for really a year, maybe 14 months. As one person put it to me, we had 2,000 people who could destroy our presidency at any moment. And, so, they had been living under this, and not sleeping through the nights under this.

And now, for the first time, the night that thing’s passed, they will get to sleep through the night. They don’t wake up in the middle of the night in sheer terror. So, just apropos of nothing else, it is sort of a historic event.

DAVID BROOKS: But I was struck by the sense of elation and just tremendous relief within the White House.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree, that’s number one?

MARK SHIELDS: It’s not — no.

JIM LEHRER: Maybe not — OK, not number one.

DAVID BROOKS: Not number one

MARK SHIELDS: Number one — I mean, there’s nobody in the White House who is on the ballot this year. I mean, everybody in the House of Representatives is. I mean, that’s…

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. Now, they’re the ones who get…

MARK SHIELDS: They’re the other ones who are staring — staring down the barrel.

JIM LEHRER: Do the Democrats have — deserve to celebrate and deserve to see this in positive terms?

MARK SHIELDS: Yes.

JIM LEHRER: All Democrats?

MARK SHIELDS: For the following reasons, for the following reasons.

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

MARK SHIELDS: Just two weeks ago, Democrats on Capitol Hill were like so many sclerotic basset hounds, just…

JIM LEHRER: Sclerotic basset hounds.

MARK SHIELDS: I mean, just trudging around, with their faces — and this has put a bounce in their stride. It’s put a smile on their face. I mean, it’s just — it’s changed the whole dynamic of Capitol Hill.

You will recall when Barack Obama was campaigning in 2008, he gave an interview with the Reno Gazette newspaper out in Nevada which absolutely infuriated Bill Clinton. He said that Ronald Reagan had changed the trajectory of the country as president, something that neither Richard Nixon nor Bill Clinton had done.

And — and this changes the trajectory of the country. I mean, whatever anybody in the Congress is ever called, that no one can ever say you were a member of a do-nothing Congress. They know they have done something large and important. And, in the hyperbole of Washington, Barack Obama has gone from being Jimmy Carter, a one-term president, admired, but not politically successful, or Bill Clinton reduced to bite-sized initiatives after losing the Congress, to now FDR or LBJ.

I mean, it’s that transformational in the perception of this town.

JIM LEHRER: Is that justified, David?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, Mark’s absolutely right, obviously, that it is consequential. Whether it’s consequential for good or bad, you know, I don’t know. It’s like trying to evaluate the Iraq war on the day the tanks crossed the Kuwaiti border into Iraq.

It looks good. But this a tremendously complicated thing, more complicated than the Iraq war. And it could go good or bad. I mean, the good side obviously is the coverage. The bad side to people like me is the sense of fiscal risk involved. And I think that was underlined this week by two events.

One, the CBO came out with their results, their predictions of where the budget deficit will be without health care in 10 years from now. And we will have gone from 40 percent of GDP of public debt to 90 percent in 10 years. That’s just cataclysmic. And then, in the short term this week, we have three bond issuings where the government is issuing debt three days in a row, and it’s going badly.

People are nervous about U.S. government debt. In fact, corporate debt is less risk — seen as less risky this week than government debt. And, so, that is just a straw in the wind that the spending entailed in a lot of things, not just this, but is going to be a real issue.

And I respect that, come November — health care is a huge historic thing. But I suspect jobs and debt will actually supplant it among the issues that people vote on.

JIM LEHRER: But back to just Barack Obama and his presidency and leadership and all of those things, just getting this done…

DAVID BROOKS: Yes.

JIM LEHRER: … however it goes after today or tomorrow or whatever, what do you think about that?

DAVID BROOKS: Right. Yes, undeniable accomplishment.

And I will tell you one specific reason, which is that, after Scott Brown wins, there are all sorts of people within the White House saying, you know, we scale this back, you get all the credit, but at half the cost and half the risk.

And a lot of people wanted to do that. And they had some logic behind them. But the president and Nancy Pelosi said, no, we want to do the whole thing, and we’re going to stick with it.

And they — they deserve credit for sticking by their guns.

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

Mark, what about the other side, the Republicans? Do they — they’re angry. Do they deserve to be angry about this?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, the Republicans are angry. They are also frustrated. They really — they thought they had a shot at winning this thing, and really sinking…

JIM LEHRER: Taking it down.

MARK SHIELDS: And let’s — the battleground was the House of Representatives. It goes down to the House of Representatives. It takes with it the Obama administration. I mean, it’s their principal initiative. The gang that couldn’t shoot straight becomes the Democratic Party.

So, the Republicans, you know, there is a sense of disappointment. And there is a sense of now finger-pointing: Why did we spend the last week-and-a-half, when the focus of the nation was on this debate, on the question of deem and pass, or procedural questions? Why were we talking with about, you Democrats, if you pass this, it’s going to hurt you in November? We should have been making the case that there is a problem in the country. We acknowledge it. We think it has to be addressed, but this is the wrong answer.

And, so, there are recriminations are going on. As far as the anger is concerned, I mean, there is an anger in the country. Make no mistake about it. And it took a large form in the opposition to the health care bill.

JIM LEHRER: Do you think — speaking of the anger, and there’s been some violence and some threats and all of that. Is that something to take seriously and be concerned about, David?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, I think so. I think it is atrocious, what has happened. And Republicans, for their own — for their own decency and for their own political survival, should point that out.

I mean, the leaders of the party, and the leaders of the Tea Party movement, to their credit, have condemned the violence, the rocks thrown, some of the histrionic rhetoric. But let’s face it. There was a ton of out-of-control, histrionic rhetoric. You can oppose this, as I do, without calling it totalitarianism or every — you know, everything else that has been hurled at it.

And that is both bad for government, but also bad politically. I would say that relationships — and we have talked about this on the show — relationships on Capitol Hill are worse than — certainly, since I have been covering politics. And a lot that has to do with the histrionic rhetoric. And people are sick of it.

And when they see Republicans this week throwing around all these charges in an out-of-control, uncivil manner, well, then they punish the party. So, forget the health of the country. Think about the health of the party.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes, I mean, I do think that one thing has changed, Jim, is, all of a sudden, the Democrats are on the offensive politically. I mean, they’re not only emboldened by the passage of this, but take, for example, the next…

JIM LEHRER: The reaction.

MARK SHIELDS: The next big issue is Wall Street reform. And John McCain made the mistake of saying, we’re not going to cooperate.

JIM LEHRER: Now, what — how do you — what do you make of that?

MARK SHIELDS: I think John McCain was angry. John McCain has a temper. John McCain is also embroiled in a primary where one poll has him only seven points ahead of J.D. Hayworth, who is running to his right in Arizona.

So, I mean, if he is seen as a stalwart, and he has been accused of being not conservative enough or whatever else — he had Sarah Palin in campaigning for him today. But I say that because Bob Corker of Tennessee, the senator, recognizes that this is an issue not like health care, with a division in the country. It’s an — it’s a 90-10.

JIM LEHRER: Everybody wants the financial thing fixed.

MARK SHIELDS: Everybody wants to go after Wall Street.

MARK SHIELDS: And if you want to be seen as a defender of the status quo on Wall Street, you are really running political risks.

JIM LEHRER: How do you see the cooperation from this — McCain’s comment aside, or part of it, is it going to — is there going to be a lack of it because of health care reform?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, I think so. I mean, one straw in the wind is Lindsey Graham. And if there’s any Republican who has shown a courageous ability to cooperate, it’s Lindsey Graham.

And he said this week that, on immigration and other issues, he is not in the mood to, because the Republicans do think they were totally squeezed out on this. Rightly or wrongly, they think that. And I think they have some justification in various committee hearings where they were totally squeezed out.

JIM LEHRER: On health care?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes.

JIM LEHRER: Yes. Yes.

DAVID BROOKS: And then they took some own self-marginalizing views.

But I guess I would agree with Mark. I think the financial regulation is the one issue that is not a clean ideological divide. There are lots of issues, like raising taxes for energy, that are pretty clean, and they will — nothing will get done on that. I would be very surprised if anything got done on immigration.

But the financial regulation, you could actually see something get done. And then the big issue is, I keep harping on, is the deficit. There is no money left for anything else.

MARK SHIELDS: Jim, I think you could say that, not to dramatize health care, it is the end of the Reagan era, in the sense of large-scale legislative initiatives. This is a marked departure from the Reagan era, which was really 30 years, I mean, a conservative consensus in the country. And that was a — part of that consensus was tax cuts, tax cuts, tax cuts.

And I think that we are now facing — and David raises part of the case — we’re facing a decade of tax increases. How it’s done — but make no mistake about it.

JIM LEHRER: Tax increases?

MARK SHIELDS: Tax increases are going to be…

JIM LEHRER: Whether you like it or not, they’re coming.

MARK SHIELDS: Whether you like it or not.

And I just — I just wanted to say one thing. Nancy Pelosi stands today in my judgment, having watched this and covered this debate, having been, with Barack Obama, the two pillars who stood tall when people were saying, let’s go, let’s go for the little bite-size.

Nancy Pelosi delivered the House of Representatives. She is the master of that House. And she has made herself — she did something which Tip O’Neill or Sam Rayburn could never do. Not once, not twice, but three times, she passed health care through the House of Representatives. And she stands, in my judgment, as the most powerful political woman in the history of this country.

JIM LEHRER: Do you buy that, David?

DAVID BROOKS: I’m trying to think of alternatives.

Some people say Edith Wilson was very powerful when Woodrow Wilson had a stroke.

JIM LEHRER: Woodrow Wilson.

DAVID BROOKS: But, certainly, this is a great accomplishment. And sort of it’s an interesting picture of what it takes to succeed in a job like this.

She is not a great speaker — I mean a spokesperson, a communicator. I personally don’t think she’s great on policy. But she has the skills to know how to control this body, which is a fractious body, even when you have a majority. And, so, those skills are maybe in her blood from her father and her brother, but also skills that she really possesses. And there’s no denying she is a very effective legislator.

MARK SHIELDS: Dick Gephardt, her predecessor as Democratic leader, said no male could have done what she did on abortion, the thorniest of all issues, that she had the credibility to go to the pro-choice women on her own side and say…

JIM LEHRER: Say, I need you on this one?

MARK SHIELDS: This is not an abortion-rights bill. And when they through — went through the roof on the executive order that the president signed last week, Sunday, to assure the support of Congressman Stupak and other pro-life Democrats, she — she stood strong and tall.

And, I mean, that was just an achievement, but it was the political timing, that abortion had to come last, but it was key to get it done.

JIM LEHRER: Do agree with that, that, without that — without that maneuver, this would never have happened?

DAVID BROOKS: Right. Well, in the weeks leading up to the vote, and would you would ask people, especially in the White House, what are you worried about, or do you think will you get it? And you expect them to come and say yes, we will get it, we will get it.

And that was their public line. But, privately, they were anxious. And you would say, well, who is — what is the problem? Is it centrists? And they would say — they would always say, it is abortion. It’s that issue.

And they — they solved that on both sides, as Mark said. Whether people respect Bart Stupak after this is a separate issue. But, politically, they solved it. And to be — you know, it should be reminded, they — Nancy Pelosi made a lot of compromises. The public option was something they really cared about.

JIM LEHRER: And she threw that away.

DAVID BROOKS: The Senate bill was something — you know, they really did do what it takes to get things passed.

JIM LEHRER: All right.

David, Mark, thank you both very much.

MARK SHIELDS: Thank you.