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Shields and Brooks Assess Economy’s Signals, NYC Bomb Plot Suspect

May 7, 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 national security concernes raised by the foiled New York City bombing and the ongoing oil cleanup in the Gulf of Mexico.

JEFFREY BROWN: And from British politics to our own political analysis of Shields and Brooks, syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks.

So we just watched the British election drama. Do you see any parallels? You see any lessons that we should take?

DAVID BROOKS, The New York Times: Well, there are some affects here. The first is deficits. The U.K. deficit situation is not quite as bad as Greece, but it’s a lot worse than ours and it’s pretty bad. And a fragile government will find it hard to cut — control those deficits.

So if you’re worried about a global debt crisis, this is not good news.

The second impact is on the Republican Party. The Republican Party and the Tory party had very similar problems post-Thatcher and Reagan. The Republican Party has gone in a more small-government, Libertarian direction. The Tory party has gone in a more communitarian — This is a broken society, we’re going to do schools, we’re going to do nurse-family partnerships, much more centrist. And they’ve actually done quite well.

And then finally, the Liberal Democrats. The fact that they, as Michael pointed out, did not get the votes suggests to me that if we have a third party, you might get a protest movement in the surveys about that, but people will probably congregate back to the big two at the end of the day.

JEFFREY BROWN: A lot of attention, but then migrate back. Mark, what do you see?

MARK SHIELDS, syndicated columnist: Dwight Morrow, the father of Anne Morrow Lindbergh and a United States diplomat, said the political party which takes credit for the sunshine should not be surprised when it gets blamed for the rain. And that’s what’s happened to the Labor Party in Great Britain. I mean, when the economy is bad, the economy is the only issue. And I think that’s certainly the truth here, and I think that’s something that we will see in this country in 2010.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, well, that’s a good segue to our economy. Go back to that discussion I had at the top here, the confusion between good job numbers but turmoil in the markets. What’s the political calculus there?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, first of all, the good job numbers, I mean, because unemployment we have said time and again — call it a lagging indicator, whatever else — it is big casino in American politics. That’s what Americans — that’s how they judge prosperity. It’s not whether Dow-Jones is up 1.5 percent or down 2.5 percent, it is whether, in fact, people are working.

And this is the best in 49 months, best number of jobs created, and even with the census jobs in there, 231,000 of them, I believe, were in the private sector. Good news, manufacturing and construction.

It’s funny to watch John Boehner say, “Where are the jobs?” the Republican leader, and you want to say to him, John, cheer up, eventually, things will get worse. I mean, this was good news. It was unvarnished good news today.

As far as the markets are concerned, I mean, I think, you know, we live in a — we live in a world that is totally wired, not simply economically but visually. I mean, we saw what was happening in Greece as it was happening and we saw the mobs attacking democracy, attacking banks. And there’s a reality behind it. I mean, it’s just not the public outrage. There’s a real problem. And you see it, and we are — we are not innocent bystanders to it. The last recession began here.

We’re seeing something else now.

JEFFREY BROWN: So the president comes out today — we saw him earlier — and he’s talking up the jobs numbers, but he has to be very anxious about what he’s seeing happening.

DAVID BROOKS: He’s got to…

JEFFREY BROWN: It might spread.

DAVID BROOKS: Well, he’s got to reflect where the country is, and I think the country is probably — has probably a pretty good read. What happened yesterday in the markets was noise. That was just something that happened. And what we’re seeing — usually, at this point after a steep recession, you get some phenomenal growth numbers. You’re up in the 9, 10 percent. We’re not seeing that. We’re seeing 3 percent. And we’re seeing good job numbers for the first time.

So there’s clearly a trend upwards. Nonetheless, there’s just a lot of bad news floating around there, and I think the number one weighing down on the public’s mind politically and on the markets’ minds are the debt floating around — the Greek debt, the American debt, the U.K. debt.

And so that’s just psychologically weighing everything down, and you see this quick hair trigger panic. And I think that’s reflected when you talk to people on Wall Street. It’s certainly reflected…

JEFFREY BROWN: We heard that from Mohamed El-Erian, talking about the long-term debt here. But do you see people focusing in on that now, or thinking the jobs numbers are the main place to look and that gives us some positive…

MARK SHIELDS: I think there’s a real cleavage among politicians and among the public leadership. I think the answer to — that if something like Dave Obey, who announced his retirement this week, chairman of the Appropriations Committee, is that it’s a jobs deficit. And we can’t — yes, that is a serious long-term budget deficit and fiscal deficit — we have a debt we have to deal with in this country — but the way we do it is by attacking the jobs deficit, which is an income deficit.

So I think, you know, that there isn’t — there hasn’t been the will.

There hasn’t been a call for collective sacrifice in this country since Ronald Reagan was elected president of the United States, and we really became sort of an ouchless, painless prosperity. And it’s going to be a new and different message to voters, and it’ll be interesting to see — I assume the president has to deliver it, and it’ll be interesting to see the reaction.

JEFFREY BROWN: That aside — I mean, even while that’s happening, it was a big week for major challenges here for the president and all kinds of leaders, right? Oil spill continues, and of course, the fallout from Times Square. How do you think that’s been handled, the Times Square?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I think he’s doing a pretty good job. You know, people fault President Obama for being passionless sometimes, for being a little too cold. But when you have a week like this, where you’ve got the Greek situation, the oil spill, you’ve got Times Square, you’ve got floods in Nashville, I think they responded with reasonable speed, but basically with a level of calmness, which is in his nature, which, A, didn’t make any mistakes, wasn’t annoying, no missteps, but was reasonably active in all those spheres.

So I think this is one of those times when his very calm nature actually serves the nation reasonably well. He’s not the central figure in many of these dramas, but it’s important for the president to be there actively involved — delegated power in the gulf, reacted reasonably calmly to what happened in Times Square. So I thought, you know, this is a good time to have a president like Obama who’s just steady.

JEFFREY BROWN: Of course, a few months ago, after the Christmas Day attempted bombing, there was all the talk of the lack of coordination, the lack of information. Does it look like the system worked better this time, or were we just lucky or…

MARK SHIELDS: I think luck is always central, whether it’s — whether it’s, you know, President Obama or President Bush or President Clinton. I think whoever the president is, luck is a factor. And the — terrorism is not the issue in which the administration would prefer the spotlight to be, although compared to an oil spill, it might be preferred.

But they have closed the gap, the Democrats have and President Obama have. What was an enormous disadvantage right after 9/11 — Republicans had a 30 percent advantage on which party was better to deal with terror. That’s now down to — most recently to a 6 percent advantage for Republicans. The president himself has high marks for his handling of terrorism.

What you see, you see a few things. I mean, there was no explosion.

There was no loss of life. We did get him. But I mean, we saw a snafu upon snafu, as well. I mean, when you have the NYPD and the FBI both leaking and competing with each other and you can read about it in the paper…

JEFFREY BROWN: That hasn’t changed, right?

MARK SHIELDS: That hasn’t changed at all. I mean, so coordination and cooperation and sharing of information and all the rest of it, but I think — you know, we have to find out that the airlines cannot handle the responsibility, that the TSA has to step up on foreign flights, as well as domestic, on the watch list.

JEFFREY BROWN: What about this move toward the lone wolf terrorist version of counterterrorism — we talked about it on the show the other night with somebody from the National Security council — readjusting, you know, counterterrorism to deal with the people who can come into the country, come out of the country, get an education, get a job.

MARK SHIELDS: Get citizenship.

JEFFREY BROWN: Get citizenship.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, I’m a little dubious about this. I think that’s a false formulation. I know David Petraeus used that formulation today. But what’s involved here is a pretty common — and now see as a pattern, which is you have recently educated affluent people — this guy had an MBA — who are radicalized. And it’s not that they’re lone wolves in the way a crazy killer is a lone wolf, they’re part of an ideological system. And so it’s the same ideological system, whether it’s Ft. Hood or whether it’s here. And so to see them as a lone wolf, as if it’s a matter of psychosis, when it’s a matter of ideology, to me, it’s a sort of a mistake.

JEFFREY BROWN: What are you seeing?

MARK SHIELDS: I think that — I’m fascinated and mystified by somebody who apparently did buy into the American dream, I mean, who came here, did all the things that one does as an aspiring American, new American, goes to school, gets the MBA, married, family — and something clicked. I mean, now whether, in fact, this was the Manchurian candidate three or four years later — the common denominator is the Islamic cleric Anwar al-Awlaki — Alaki, I guess — that he had that connection and he was the sort of the sponsor, the ideological sponsor, if you would, and spiritual counselor to the doctor at Ft. Hood, to the Christmas bomber, and again to Shahzad. I mean…

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, but there’s also a pattern here. Olivier Roy, the French writer had it years ago, which was a lot of these guys, including some of the 9/11 guys, very well educated, they’re caught between modernity and a fantasy version of pure Islam. And they choose that fantasy version.

JEFFREY BROWN: But we still don’t know quite why in this case.


DAVID BROOKS: Well, it’s a matter of individual circumstances.

JEFFREY BROWN: Let me, just in our last minute or so here — I want to come back to politics. You mentioned David Obey, a very powerful figure for a long time, and announced he will not run again. What’s the significance?

MARK SHIELDS: Significance is that David Obey was almost unique among political figures in this town — 41 years. You never saw him on the — on the cable talk shows. He was never on the Washington, D.C., social circuit. He was grumpy. He was hard-working. He was smarter. He was an amazingly effective legislator. And he was truly remarkable, in my judgment, and unlike anybody else who came to this town, he absolutely said what he meant and he meant what he said. And he said the same thing to whoever he was talking to. And he got in fights with presidents of his own party and leaders of his own party.

But he said to me, he said, You learn early on in this town that our society is wired, and it’s wired to the advantage of those who are privileged. And the one thing public policy can do is give a break to people who aren’t privileged and don’t have that advantage. And I think he spent his whole career doing it. And he will be missed because he was truly one of a kind.

JEFFREY BROWN: And of course, this announcement plays into this question of how Democrats — the prospect for Democrats.

DAVID BROOKS: Right, and they have bad prospects, though there are not a lot of retirees, to be fair. There are chunks, but not a lot. I agree with everything Mark said about David Obey, but I still think he ill served the country in a crucial respect. Obama comes in, promises a new style of politics. Whether that was realistic or not, I’m not sure. But immediately, there’s a stimulus package that goes through the House Appropriations Committee. And I remember watching the mark-up, and David Obey was as rude and as ruthless towards the Republicans in that committee as, frankly, Republicans had been to Democrats when they were in power. And that set us back.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, that will have to be…

MARK SHIELDS: He wrote the stimulus package, and he said, “It’s the unpopular things you do that you’re most proud of.” And he’s proud of what he wrote.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Mark and David, thanks so much.