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Shields and Brooks Assess Midterm Politics, Kagan’s High Court Path

May 14, 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 tough Senate race in Pennsylvania and the president's nomination of Elena Kagan for the Supreme Court.

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

David, how do you see Specter-Sestak race?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, Sestak has a lead, and it just doesn’t feel good for Specter, I would say.

If you’re part of the old system, it’s probably not a good year for you. If you’re using some of the old tactics, probably not a good year to use those tactics.

And, so, somebody who has been doing politics for a long period of time is used to certain ways of doing things, and this is sort of wrong year to be used to those — those ways.

JIM LEHRER: Would you add or subtract to that?

MARK SHIELDS: I would add that Arlen Specter, as Terry Madonna commented to Judy in the piece, is a remarkable 80-year-old man. He is — has the energy of somebody one-half of his age. He is relentless. I agree with David that — the polls have it both ways, I mean, a two-point lead, a two-point lead this way.

JIM LEHRER: And it’s been going back and forth.

MARK SHIELDS: It’s been going back and forth.


MARK SHIELDS: The problem for Arlen Specter is, he’s run — won five times statewide. So, if you’re undecided at this point, you’re not undecided about Arlen Specter. You’re undecided probably about Joe Sestak.


MARK SHIELDS: The question is, who turns out on Tuesday? Because there isn’t a lot of enthusiasm and intensity. If there’s a big turnout, I don’t think it augurs well for him.

He — for he — him being Arlen Specter — Jim, it was a classic bargain. This was not love between the Obama White House and Arlen Specter. This was a calculated bargain. He brought to them the 60th vote, and they gave to him a chance to run for a sixth term, which he couldn’t do in the Republican primary.

JIM LEHRER: No way he would have gotten the nomination?

MARK SHIELDS: No. So, I mean — so, it was — they both went in with their eyes open. It wasn’t something that, you know, what, carried away in the passion of the moment.

DAVID BROOKS: That’s the problem, the spirit of calculation.



DAVID BROOKS: And, so that offended. It was in the Sestak ad. And that’s sort of — he was honest about it. It’s good for him. But it is that spirit of calculation that is exactly what people don’t like.

They want to see some deep, emotional, nonpolitical commitment to something. And Specter hasn’t been a bad senator, by any means. He’s very smart. He’s been productive. But that spirit of calculation right now, it’s — it’s not the right year for that.

JIM LEHRER: I just also spent a couple of days in Philadelphia, and whether they were for Sestak or for Specter, just about everybody mentioned that commercial…


JIM LEHRER: … the one you got — you know, you did it for one vote, your one — yourself.

MARK SHIELDS: It’s a brilliant commercial, because at no point can you accuse the makers of that commercial or Joe Sestak of saying anything about Arlen Specter. It’s all done in the words of George W. Bush and Arlen Specter himself.

So, it is — it’s incredibly — and this is the second time Arlen Specter switched. He was a Democrat. And he said he has been in public office for 43 years. Forty-three years ago, he became a Republican to run for district attorney of Philadelphia and win. And now he’s returning to the party of his origins. I guess you get one switch. I don’t know if you get two.

JIM LEHRER: What is your reading, David, on why the attack on Sestak about his service record has not taken traction?


I think, here, the medium was the message. If you look at that ad, it had all the cliches of a negative attack ad of the sort we have seen thousands of times. It had the black-and-white pictures, sort of the same style voice-over. So, before you got to the substance, it screamed at you: political attack ad. And it wasn’t different the way that Sestak…

JIM LEHRER: Style as much as anything?

DAVID BROOKS: I think people just saw that.


Do you agree?

MARK SHIELDS: Yes. And it isn’t — the question is, it isn’t like he was relieved of command for consorting with the enemy or something of the sort.


MARK SHIELDS: It isn’t — and he did have a long and rather distinguished career up to that point, until he was relieved.

JIM LEHRER: All right, now fit Robert Bennett of Utah’s problem into this. Of course, he is the incumbent senator from Utah and a Republican who the convention in Utah said, no thanks, didn’t renominate him. How does this fit in, or does it, to what is happening to Specter?

MARK SHIELDS: It fits in, in this sense. Pennsylvania is a closed primary, that is, only Democrats can vote in the primary. That’s why — one reason the Sestak ad is so effective. In other words, independents, like in many states, can’t drop in, or Republicans can’t show up.

JIM LEHRER: … certainly become a Democrat and vote?

MARK SHIELDS: That’s right. You are an enrolled Democrat.


MARK SHIELDS: And only Republicans obviously can vote in Republican — Utah was that cubed. This was a state convention where only the activists who had gotten elected three months earlier in meetings showed up and had a vote.

So, there’s 3,500 people voting, and he loses by 325 votes, he, Robert Bennett, with an 84 percent lifetime conservative record. And he’s banned for two things. One is his TARP vote that they have gone after him, having voted to — on the asset relief.

JIM LEHRER: The federal — the financial bailout.

MARK SHIELDS: That bailout bill.


MARK SHIELDS: And, second, for collaborating with the enemy. The enemy in this case is Ron Wyden, sort of an iconoclastic Democrat from Oregon.

Bennett and Wyden cooperated on a health plan which David was very high on, a lot of people endorsed.

JIM LEHRER: It didn’t go anywhere either.

MARK SHIELDS: Well, no, but it was an interesting — it was an interesting approach.

JIM LEHRER: OK. Yes. Yes. All right.

MARK SHIELDS: But it involved mandated insurance.

Jim, this year, it doesn’t make any difference whether you have a D next to your name or an R next to your name. The thing that is a problem is having an I next to your name, that you’re an incumbent.


DAVID BROOKS: Right, or independent. If you work across party lines, and you’re in a primary, whether you’re Arlen Specter or Robert Bennett, that’s probably a bad thing.

And, so, he was hit, as Mark said, for this — the Wyden-Bennett bill, by the way, most economists agreed, would have reduced government spending more than anything else. So, he’s being attacked…

JIM LEHRER: You did. You really thought that was a good idea.

DAVID BROOKS: I thought it was — I think most health economists would say it was the best — whether you thought the politics were possible or not, it was the best possible thing. And it would have reduced government spending. So, he’s being attacked on the right for a bill that would have reduced government spending.

The other thing that is odd about this race is, he was attacked for these two things, but weird things were popping up in this race. He was attacked for the 17th Amendment to the Constitution, which gives us direct election of senators. That became a little issue.

Why is Washington taking control of senators, when the states should control it? I guess people love state legislators or something. The other thing was, he was attacked for being in the grips of the Mormon Church because he said, you know, immigrants are deserving of humanity, which was the Mormon Church position.

And his view was, you know, this — 80 percent of the Utah voters are Mormons. You would think that would be a good thing, but, no, he was attacked for that. So, you had the big issues. You also had a lot of sort of weird issues floating up, which is all part of the — just the general rage.

JIM LEHRER: What about the idea that 3,500 activists at a political party can cause such a monumental result?


Well, everyone has their own system. I mean, the — you have caucuses. You have primaries. And I guess I’m in favor of more open, though it would be interesting to know if he would have done better in a primary.


DAVID BROOKS: The — the country is just in a ticked-off mood.

JIM LEHRER: Is there any indication…

MARK SHIELDS: Barack Obama wouldn’t be president but for caucuses and…

JIM LEHRER: That’s true, and Jimmy Carter, to begin with.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes, but, I mean, that — that really — Hillary Clinton won the primary vote against Barack Obama.

JIM LEHRER: All right, what about Mollohan, the Democratic incumbent congressman in West Virginia? Had been there over 20 years. He lost his renomination primary race. And, here again, does this fit in this as well?

MARK SHIELDS: It does. Well, it does in the sense that what has always worked in the past for the incumbent, that is, Senator Smith or Congressman Jones, boy, you may not like him, may not agree with him on everything, but, son of a gun, he got that new interchange for us, and he…

JIM LEHRER: He paved the roads.

MARK SHIELDS: He got the contract that kept our factory open. Well, his — his — Alan Mollohan, who was 14 terms…

JIM LEHRER: I got his name wrong. I’m mispronouncing his name. Sorry about that.

MARK SHIELDS: That’s all right. That’s OK. That’s all right.

JIM LEHRER: Thank you.

MARK SHIELDS: Fourteen terms, 14 terms. He’s third-ranking on Appropriations in the House. I mean, between him and Senator Bob Byrd, the emeritus chairman of the Appropriations Committee in the Senate, West Virginia had a lock on federal spending.

And it — it didn’t work for him. Now, his opponent did run on allegations of ethical — or unethical behavior on his part, a question of whether his net worth had — which it had — improved dramatically while he had been there. The Journal, Wall Street Journal had done a piece on it.

But it was really, again, an anti-Washington, anti-incumbent…

JIM LEHRER: You see it the same way?

DAVID BROOKS: Right, but also anti-transactional, anti-earmarks.

I think, for a lot of decades, people thought, well, as long as we’re getting a piece of the pie, then this guy is good. He’s getting us a piece of the pie. But now people have seen that everyone seeking a piece of the pie in macro adds up to big budget problems.

JIM LEHRER: Big, big, big…

DAVID BROOKS: And, so, earmarks, which used to be the good thing, are now suddenly a bad thing.


DAVID BROOKS: And I — personally, I think that is probably correct. I think that judgment is right.

But it’s part of this mix of, everything that’s calculated, everything that is transactional about standard politics, people want to get rid of.

JIM LEHRER: How do you see the Elena Kagan nomination now? It’s over a week.


Well, I mean, she’s — there’s no sign that she’s not going to get confirmed. So far, it’s a reasonably smooth rollout. I have my problems with it.

JIM LEHRER: What’s your problem — what are your problems?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, my problem is, everyone I know who knows her — and I do not know her — is — speaks very admiringly of her, very good dean, very smart, very nice, very good at working with conservatives and liberals.

My problem is, what I did was, I looked at all her public speeches, or as many as I could get my hands on. And they were made in an effort not to say anything, because she didn’t want to cause herself any problems.

And my view, if you’re going to become an academic, your job is to say things, get involved in the fro — to-and-fro of debate. And a lot of great legal minds as great as her did say things.

And why should they be expelled from possibility of being on the Supreme Court, while she gets it because she was so cautious and so careful?


MARK SHIELDS: Finley Peter Dunne, the great political philosopher of the last century, said that the Supreme Court follows the election returns.

I think this is a case, the nomination of Elena Kagan, where the Supreme Court choice anticipates the election returns, and that is, because November looks like such a bad month, Election Day for Democrats, I think the president wanted somebody who was young, able, likable, and confirmable.

JIM LEHRER: And does it become an issue in the long run?

MARK SHIELDS: She — no. I think she’s confirmable. And I think then, if there’s another vacancy, he comes back with somebody else.

JIM LEHRER: What about the idea of so many New Yorkers and so many Ivy Leaguers are suddenly the only people qualified to be on the Supreme Court? That’s what is called a loaded question for you, Mark.

MARK SHIELDS: I have to tell you, I mean, I am so tired of Ivy Leaguers. I really am.

I want somebody who went to a state university, who didn’t grow up in the Eastern time zone, who worked nights, maybe, to pay for their own books, who either was in the enlisted ranks in the United States military or knows somebody who was, somebody who just really didn’t — is west of the Hudson, and east of Malibu.

MARK SHIELDS: There’s a great country out there with an awful lot of people in it, and maybe somebody who went to night school once.

I mean, why do we — why do we restrict it to this pool that — you know, I really just think it is terribly elitist. I mean, it sounds like the British ruling class.


Well, Mark and I should be happy that it’s all Catholics and Jews on the court now.

JIM LEHRER: You guys are covered. That’s easy for you to say.


DAVID BROOKS: Personally, I’m the only New York Jew not on the court, so I’m a little pissed off about that.

DAVID BROOKS: But I actually agree with Mark.

I think the politics of it are bad, by the way, for exactly that reason. People look at it, oh, another Harvard Law. And, you know, they’re very smart people and they’re very fine people. But it is true that it would be nice to have somebody from the heartland of the Midwest, you know, Chicago, for example.

No, I’m just kidding.


DAVID BROOKS: No, I agree — I agree with Mark, somebody, you know — it is — and this is true, by the way, of the Obama administration in general. There’s a lot of Harvard and Yale there up and down the ranks. And it is a narrow slice of America.

MARK SHIELDS: When Lyndon Johnson was just absolutely rhapsodizing about how brilliant Jack Kennedy’s Cabinet, President Jack Kennedy’s Cabinet was, Sam Rayburn — you know, there were all these Ivy League pedigrees and everything else — Sam Rayburn said, “I just wish one of them had ever run for sheriff, Lyndon.”

Well, I just wish somebody had run for sheriff who was nominated to the Supreme Court, who had been out in the political process and put their name on the ballot.

JIM LEHRER: David can speak for himself, but, Mark, if you ever do run for sheriff, I will vote for you, I promise.

MARK SHIELDS: Thank you.

JIM LEHRER: Will you vote for him, David?

DAVID BROOKS: I will think about it.

JIM LEHRER: Well, we will take it.

Thank you both very much.