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Shields, Brooks on Political Cost of Unemployment

April 2, 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 political impact of sustained high unemployment and Obama's surprise visit to Afghanistan.

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

Mark, today’s good news on jobs, how good is it?

MARK SHIELDS: It’s good, Jim. It’s better. I would just remind, the great maxim of politics, when the economy is bad, the economy is the only issue. And you don’t go into an election at 9.7 percent unemployment and don’t think that are you not going to be held liable for it.

I think that’s…

JIM LEHRER: As long as it stays that way…

MARK SHIELDS: Well, it averaged 54,000 new jobs every month this quarter. They lost an average of 753,000 jobs every month the first quarter of 2009.

But it’s a long way down to 9 — from 9.7 down to a tolerable level politically. The Democrats are still very much on the defensive. Barney Frank, the Democratic chairman of the House Banking Committee, said no Democrat can really run on the theory — the slogan that things would have sucked worse if I hadn’t been here.

MARK SHIELDS: You know? And I think — I think that’s the problem the Democrats have: You know, we would have gone over the abyss, we would have gone over the precipice if we hadn’t done what we had done.

OK. Don’t tell people out of work that things are better.

JIM LEHRER: What do you think?

DAVID BROOKS: I agree with Barney Frank, maybe not quite in that language.


No, you know, economically, it’s good news. And, psychologically, I think, for the country, to get any good news is just — it just feels good. But, politically, I don’t think it’s going to make much of a difference this year. You have got to remember, the context is this torrent of distrust and — and hatred may not be too strong a word toward Washington and toward incumbents.

And so is anything going to happen this year that is going to reverse that wind? I don’t really think so. The unemployment rate is 9.7. The government projections are it will go up to 9.8, as more people enter the labor force. You have got employers really upping the productivity of their workers, making them even slower to hire.

So, the prospect is still for a long period of high unemployment and just a long — another year at least, if not more — 8 percent unemployment for two years. So, this is going to be a long, terrible political period.

JIM LEHRER: Yes, but you — so you agree with Mark that unemployment really does — or the economy really does control the politics, like it or not, yes?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. I actually halfway agree.

JIM LEHRER: Halfway.

DAVID BROOKS: And this is something you hear from the White House. Well, it’s all unemployment. It is 100 percent unemployment.


DAVID BROOKS: And I would say, it is 50 percent unemployment. That’s clearly a main reason why people are very upset.

But, if you look at the polling, it doesn’t explain everything. It doesn’t explain why — when ask you people on issue after issue which party do you trust, Republicans or Democrats, the Democrats have lost their advantage on the economy, on health care. On a whole bunch of issues, there has been this huge shift. On what they call the generic ballot, the Republicans are up.

And so I don’t think it’s simply the economy. I think it’s also the sense of Nancy Pelosi; Obama is more liberal than we thought he was. And I — so, I think it’s half unemployment, half distrust of the expansion of government.

MARK SHIELDS: I disagree with David’s numbers, for one of the few times. I mean, I agree there is a poll that says that. But most polls still show Democrats with an advantage, but a shrinking advantage.

I think the economy is a bigger issue. When the economy is good, Jim, you can argue about things like whether we ought to have pledge allegiance to the flag, or, you know, or whether Gennifer Flowers matters or whatever else. But, when the economy is bad, that is really — it dominates everything politically.

And I — I think that’s — and the longer it goes in 2010, the more it’s going to be owned by President Obama. I mean, they still blame President Bush, and he still is held primarily responsible. But, each month, that’s declining, and he’s going to own the economy by the fall of 2010.

JIM LEHRER: Speaking of President Obama, what did you think of his decision on oil and gas drilling offshore?

DAVID BROOKS: I thought it was pretty balanced. I mean, you look at the reaction, a lot of environmentalists were upset. Some were not. A lot of oil manufacturers were pleased. Some were not.

I think, if you look at the overall Obama energy policy, you look at the gesture on nuclear energy, this gesture, none of this going to happen any time soon, but you see balance. You see him trying to get some — really being aggressive on clean technologies, but also allowing some of the current technologies.

There has been this tendency, I think, of the Democratic Party to fall in love with the next energy technology, and not really want to use the ones we have right now. But Obama has been balanced, for the innovation, for the current policy.

You know, I’m not sure how substantive it is, because we are not going to get drilling or nuclear power any time soon, but, I think, politically, it looks like he’s trying everything, which just seems to me a very sensible approach.

JIM LEHRER: This has upset, of course, a lot of Democrats, has it not, Mark? I mean, they wanted him to go the enviro route completely, did they not?

MARK SHIELDS: Yes. Now, he had come out for offshore drilling during the campaign when he was running against John McCain and Sarah Palin, who were two of the most enthusiastic drillers, outside of…

JIM LEHRER: Drill, baby, drill.

MARK SHIELDS: … the American Dental Association.

MARK SHIELDS: But there was heavy symbolism, I thought, on the Obama policy that, when you get Barbara Boxer, the senator from California, chairman of the Senate Environment Committee, endorsing his position, because it exempted California, Oregon, and Washington from drilling…

JIM LEHRER: Oh, Mark, you’re not suggesting what I think are you suggesting.

MARK SHIELDS: No, no, no, I would suggest that, that she is up for reelection this year.


MARK SHIELDS: And you get the embrace of Bob McDonnell, the newly elected Republican governor of Virginia, for tidelands drilling off of Virginia.

JIM LEHRER: Which he is in favor of.

MARK SHIELDS: He is in favor of.


MARK SHIELDS: And so is Florida. You get Republicans in Georgia in favor of it.

So, it is — it’s intriguing to watch the American Petroleum Institute and Barbara Boxer…

MARK SHIELDS: … the American Petroleum Institute endorse the president’s position.

So, it is — I think it is intended, at least in part, to build political support for the president’s energy bill, which makes sense, so that you are not in that position you were on health care, where it’s all — where every Republican is opposed completely.

JIM LEHRER: Shocked, shocked that politics had something to do with this?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. I mean, the Virginians are happy. The New Jerseyans are not happy, because they are afraid the drilling will — the effects will hit their waterfront.

JIM LEHRER: That’s right.

DAVID BROOKS: So, a lot of it is local.

But I do think, for an administration that has sort of lost independents, this is a sign that we are not just captive to Democratic groups. And it’s not — by the way, I have a lot of arguments with my conservative colleagues on how liberal Obama is.

And I could point to this. I could point to Afghanistan. I could point to his really being aggressive, attacks or criticism of the teacher unions. I think there has been a whole series of gestures where he has proven himself not to be a down-the-line liberal by any means. And this is one of them.

JIM LEHRER: Do agree with that?

MARK SHIELDS: It is. It is.

Jill Lawrence, who writes for Politics Daily, went through a litany of issues, including abortion rights, for example, where he endorsed an executive order, essentially, that there would be…

JIM LEHRER: To get the health care bill through, yes.

MARK SHIELDS: The health care bill through.


MARK SHIELDS: David points out the teachers unions, that — opposing the public option in the health care bill, willing to tax health care plans for labor union members, not pushing card check.

I mean, there’s a number of places, when you make the case that this is a one-world, socialist left-winger, it’s awfully hard. There’s — there’s too many exceptions.


David, you mentioned — you mentioned Afghanistan. What do you make of this? What is Karzai up to, just taking his statement yesterday?

DAVID BROOKS: If we have a more insufferable ally in the world, I don’t know about them.

I mean, Americans are dying to give that country a chance at civility and order. And he continues to play one card after another, essentially blaming Americans for all the problem, not really doing anything on corruption of significance, and sort of telling a storyline that the Americans are out to take over his country, when, you know, he is president because of the stability provided by the United States and by the Western allies.

And so he has just — just been insufferable. And, so, we’re there. We can’t get out. We can’t say, oh, because we don’t like Karzai, we’re leaving. But the idea — and I’m very glad Obama went over there — he gave a brilliant speech to the troops. But it idea that…

JIM LEHRER: That was a good speech, wasn’t it, David?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, it was just really tremendously good.

And — and — but the idea that you can talk Karzai into being what we hope him to be is just not going to happen. So, we better have some work-arounds.

JIM LEHRER: Work-arounds?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, yes. I mean, the — it was interesting that the president was there unexpected, unannounced, so that Karzai could not get the — the political pluses of having ceremonial photo opportunities or anything.

He was in and out. He gave him the — he gave him the stern Dutch uncle lecture. And that was — that was the purpose of the visit, other than the troops, as David pointed out.

And, you know, we’re seeing, with General Jones on the show last night with you, and from other reports, without a functioning, honest, responsive government on the ground, all the military efforts in the world, on the part of the Afghans, all the military efforts in the world and sacrifice by Americans mean nothing, if there is nothing there to take its place.

JIM LEHRER: Well, what do you think he doesn’t get about this, about that, that, I mean, he doesn’t — he is not going to exist if he doesn’t get his act together, because America is going to — could eventually get tired of this, and this whole thing could — we could leave, it could collapse? You know, there are all kinds of…

MARK SHIELDS: I will say three words that are rarely heard from me.

JIM LEHRER: All right. OK.

MARK SHIELDS: I don’t know what he is thinking.

MARK SHIELDS: I mean, the man remains a mystery to me. He is a fashion plate, and, beyond that, he is just an enigma to me. I cannot understand where he sees his self-interest here.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. Well, I mean, he — what did he do just before Obama went over there? He went and had Ahmadinejad over there.

So, he may have some beliefs.

JIM LEHRER: The head of Iran, yes.

DAVID BROOKS: All politics is local. I don’t know what the Pashtun politics of the place are. But he has clearly decided that there is some hostility toward the U.S. troops, towards casualties inflicted by U.S. troops. And he’s going to ride that. And he has been riding it quite strongly.

And let’s face it. This is a kleptocracy. And he gets money from stealing. And we are trying to — or at least his brother probably does. And so we’re trying to crack down — we’re trying to crack down on that.

JIM LEHRER: From the drug trade, from the opium.



I know it’s a complicated subject, but what is your reaction to how the Vatican is handling the attacks on the pope, particularly — we just — Kwame reported in the news summary today’s statement by the pope’s minister, and comparing what is happening to the pope and the Vatican to what — anti-Semitism?

MARK SHIELDS: I think — I say this as a practicing Catholic. I think that the church has handled the child abuse scandal from the very beginning in the worst possible manner, that their first inclination seemed to be to protect the priests, and then to protect the bishops who were protecting the priests.

And there seemed to be minimal concern, in too many instances, for the child, especially the most vulnerable and the least powerful, and, in some cases, handicapped children who were abused.

Are there people who are delighting in seeing the church embarrassed and humiliated and exposed? Sure. But that — that is not — the facts are the facts. That was the first charge that was leveled against The Boston Globe when they revealed the stories about Cardinal Law, that this was part of an anti-Catholic — maybe there was a concern, but the facts stand for themselves.

JIM LEHRER: What about — what about this — the anti-Semitism angle?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, you know, as a semi-practicing Jew, the comparison between a child molestation scandal and the victims of the Holocaust is an offensive comparison. And I think Jews and most people are offended by that comparison.

And I think — but what it speaks to is not — is an insularity in the response and a tone-deafness to the response. At least a small coterie of people who are making statements — and this was not reflective of church policy — but who are making statements who have been inside the corridors of a world and have difficulty perceiving how things are understood and interpreted outside.

MARK SHIELDS: The archbishop of Dublin, archbishop of Dublin, Archbishop Martin, made a compelling statement echoing — really taking great issue with the Vatican and its handling of this whole crisis and scandal.

JIM LEHRER: As a semi-practicing Protestant, who is going to win the Final Four?

MARK SHIELDS: It will be a game between the West Virginia Mountaineers and Butler Bulldogs, the two underdogs. I’m sorry for Duke, my daughter’s alma mater, wonderful school, where everybody has his own tennis coach and a private orthodontist and a sports car.


MARK SHIELDS: But this is blue-collar America, Butler against West Virginia.

DAVID BROOKS: Judy Woodruff and I have ties to Duke.

There’s a lot of hostility, unfair aspersions cast at Duke, but Duke will win it in the end, sports car, Porsches, Mercedes, whatever it takes.

JIM LEHRER: All right.

JIM LEHRER: Amen. And thank you all very much.