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Shields and Brooks Discuss the Gulf Oil Spill’s Political Price

May 28, 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 government's role in the Gulf oil disaster and the expensive governor's race in California.

JIM LEHRER: And finally tonight: the analysis of Shields and Brooks, syndicated columnist Mark Shields, New York Times columnist David Brooks. David, what do you think of the way the president has handled the oil spill crises?

DAVID BROOKS: What struck me is how it reveals your — your underlying view of the role of government.

We had a fellow on the show earlier in one of the reports named Mr. Lods who was in the shrimp business.


DAVID BROOKS: And he was out there saying: You know, the government isn’t in the shrimp business. I don’t expect them to be responsible for it. And the government isn’t in the oil business. I don’t expect them to be responsible for it.

And that is sort of my view. I think people are saying, well, President Obama, President Obama, do something, do something. But they are always very vague about exactly what he should do about the oil that is coming out still.

And so I don’t expect him to be able to close that hole. That’s BP’s job. It’s not our — it’s not the government’s job. The government is doing a reasonably good job, I think, of doing the cleaning and the response. So, I give him a B. You know, this is not the standard he applied to President Bush during Katrina, but I think it is a realistic standard of what we should expect from government.

JIM LEHRER: Realistic standard from what we should expect from government, Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: I don’t know if it is realistic, Jim.

I think the reality is that, in a time of crisis — and this is a time of national crisis, make no mistake about it — the president has not been free of crises. I mean, he inherited several. Many have come since that were anticipated.

But this meets the definition of a crisis. This is unexpected, and unplanned-for, in that sense. And it is real.

JIM LEHRER: Not like health care reform.

MARK SHIELDS: That’s right.


MARK SHIELDS: And it — but it has gripped — it has gripped people in this country. And when that happens, Americans instinctively turn to the president for leadership.

And in a time of crisis, they suspend what are the traditional checks and balances on a president. They give almost unchecked power. And they look for a few things. They look for a sense of control, a sense of command, and a sense of confidence.

JIM LEHRER: What about empathy?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, empathy — I think empathy is different in this sense, because President Obama came to his preeminence politically in September of 2008, in the time of the financial crisis, when he showed a sense of confidence and control and almost command, as John McCain didn’t, quite frankly, at that time in September 2008.

And I think that probably sewed up the election right then and there, I mean, the events and his performance. Now I think that there is a certain passivity that has come through, that the president has not been assertive. The empathy thing, that — he has to stay within his game. He is not, by nature, a demonstrative person.

It has served him very well. He is a controlled and cool and almost detached person publicly. And that has served him well in his career. And it would — I think it might be artificial if he started showing tears or whatever at this point. But it would be nice to see him hug somebody in a way of consolation.


DAVID BROOKS: Well, he could do better theater maybe. And he held a press conference yesterday. And he probably should have held that a couple weeks ago. And he probably should have had made daily press conferences, as Bobby Jindal did during Katrina or Rudy Giuliani did after 9/11.

And, so, that would have been nice, if he had maybe explained more or showed more theater. But that wouldn’t have closed the hole at the bottom of the ocean. And so, you know, maybe — I’m not sure we should really be looking to the government in these circumstances.

JIM LEHRER: But the government — replace the word government with the president.


JIM LEHRER: In other words, not the government and the machinery, the bureaucracy, but the president.


JIM LEHRER: Mark’s point that, like it or not, when things get rough, they’re going to look to the president, is that inevitable? You are saying it’s not?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I’m not sure it was in the 19th century.


DAVID BROOKS: I’m not sure that is the way we naturally are. Mr. Lods, the guy in the shrimp business, and me have a sense.

DAVID BROOKS: The government has certain jobs. And part of the job is to regulate the oil industry, so this thing doesn’t happen as much as it could.

Part of the job is to help people who are hurting who are in those industries, who are in those towns, who are in the restaurants. That’s clearly part of the government’s job. And the government’s job is to oversee BP to close the hole.

But BP has an incredible incentive to close that hole. There is nothing — they have no incentive to let it keep open. So, I’m not sure I personally blame President Obama because that hole is still open.

JIM LEHRER: How do you — what is your analysis, Mark, of the way this story has gripped the American people now? It is everywhere. Everybody is watching that plume.

MARK SHIELDS: Well, that…

JIM LEHRER: One — someplace, if not online NewsHour, somewhere else.

MARK SHIELDS: No, they are going to rue the day that — the Democrats are — that they insisted that BP make available that camera, because…


MARK SHIELDS: … because every time people turn on television, they are reminded that it’s still continuing, that it hasn’t worked, that Washington isn’t working.

And I disagree with David on this. People do look to the president. And I would say the difference in the 19th century was the difference between James Buchanan, faced with seven states seceding from the union, and Abraham Lincoln, his successor.

I mean, he — he — he was a forceful leader, took the country into war, yes, but he saved the union. And I think that’s people who expect action and active — it isn’t a question of whether the president goes in himself and plugs it — nobody is talking about that — or sending some 82nd Airborne in to do it.

But when — when there are toys that come into the country with lead on them and children get sick, there is a sense of, there is a responsibility for that. Somebody is supposed to be protecting and defending that. And the ultimate responsibility, as the president himself said yesterday, is with him.

People will accept blunders and temporizing and mistakes if, in fact, it is resolved successfully. But, Jim, this is going — this has taken all the oxygen out of the room. There is no other debate about jobs, jobs, jobs or the economy. This is it. This is a pass-fail test for the president, not for the Congress, not for the corporation.

JIM LEHRER: How do you explain that, David, that — that there is this feeling now that people are saying, my goodness? It’s the old moon shot. Now, my God, we can send people to the moon, but we can’t shut this hole in the bottom of the ocean?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. Well, some things are really, really hard.

I mean, one of the things that has happened is that we now base our lives and our civilization on incredibly complicated systems. The financial market is incredibly complicated, drilling holes in — miles down in the ocean, incredibly complicated systems. And we charge people to run these systems, when they really can’t evaluate the risks very well.

They are so complicated, they are beyond comprehension. So, if you look at the decisions that were actually made on the platform in the hours up, they had some tests which they didn’t know whether they were right or not. Should they recirculate the mud in the right way? Should they cement the hole? Did they do that in the right way?

And you had people making decisions based on certain risk assessments which were completely wrong. And we have seen this before. We saw it in the financial markets. We saw it in the Challenger explosions. People were — we’re based on incredibly complicated technical systems that we do not understand.

And in these circumstances, we are often vastly overconfident about how much…

JIM LEHRER: How we can do that.

DAVID BROOKS: … we can control. And people take risks, and you get disasters.

JIM LEHRER: Let’s go back to the California governor’s race.

Why — it’s a graveyard for politicians. Why do people want to spend so much money to be governor of California?

MARK SHIELDS: Boy. Well, I mean it is — it is a great job. I mean, it’s been a…

JIM LEHRER: Great job? Why?

MARK SHIELDS: … been a springboard for national prominence and leadership. I mean, Ronald Reagan came from Sacramento. Jerry Brown was a national figure. Earl Warren was chief justice of the Supreme Court. So, I mean, it is.


MARK SHIELDS: Richard Nixon ran for governor. There is something about Sacramento and that.

JIM LEHRER: … Schwarzenegger, Pete Wilson. You’ve got Gray Davis, recent folks who have had that job who haven’t come out well.

MARK SHIELDS: Well, no, no, it is a tough, tough job. Don’t get me wrong.


MARK SHIELDS: When they are saying at each other that — both Whitman and Poizner saying that, six years ago, things were better, before Arnold — they are distancing themselves from their own Republican governor. Six years ago, Gray Davis, the Democrat, was governor, and he was impeached.

So, I mean, that — that tells you something about the political fortunes in the state, $19 billion deficit. It is remarkable that they’re spending so deeply.

DAVID BROOKS: If I can take a whack at it, I mean, why would you want to be governor in a $19 billion deficit?

JIM LEHRER: Sure. Yes.

DAVID BROOKS: It’s going to be miserable, miserable.

And, so, part of the reason I think you want to do is it because you like being the center of attention. It is sort of ego-gratifying. But the real reason — and I — this is something we don’t talk about enough — is that you really think you can help the country or help the state.

I was on a plane to New York a couple weeks ago. And it was the last shuttle on a Thursday night up to New York. And we were late, and we landed at midnight. And it was — there were probably eight or 10 members of Congress on that plane, because they’re all going back to their districts in New York.

And I’m getting off the plane at La Guardia. And it is midnight, 12:30, and I’m thinking, they do this every week?


DAVID BROOKS: You don’t do that unless you — you do it for some ego, but you really don’t do it unless you think you are helping the country, because it’s just not that glamorous. It’s not that easy.

We got a guy in New Jersey, Christie, Governor Christie, who is cutting budgets. That’s no fun.


DAVID BROOKS: But I think, you know, above all ego, there’s some real service ethic there.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes, that — that — I agree with David in most cases, that they’re spending $70 million, which Meg Whitman has now broken this week, and to discuss — it’s one thing to run and say, OK, this is what is important. This is what I really want to do for the children of our state, and what — but when you are talking about who’s more against immigration — and that’s what, I mean, that debate has devolved to in California.

And it’s — and it’s ugly. I mean, it is not only that. It is going to — it is going to be counterproductive for them, because whoever wins that is going to have alienated 35 percent of the electorate of the state by so doing.

DAVID BROOKS: A woman in the House once said to me, you don’t win, you don’t serve. And that is the character challenge. You have got to win to serve. And they do what you have to do.

MARK SHIELDS: But you have got to deserve to win, too.

JIM LEHRER: A few seconds left here.

You’re not — you weren’t surprised by the House vote on don’t ask, don’t tell, were you?

DAVID BROOKS: No, but it is a remarkable story of where the country has come in a relatively short period of time.

I just hope the review the Pentagon does is a serious review, because that is an open question to me of what the long-term effects are.

MARK SHIELDS: A majority of the country opposed gays serving in the military 17 years ago.

JIM LEHRER: Seventeen years ago?

MARK SHIELDS: Seventeen years ago, in 1993. Today, we’re talking over — by a 3-1 margin. There was some Democratic self-interest in this vote. Let’s be very candid about it. More than 80 percent of women favor gays voted in the — being in the military and being accepted openly, 80 percent of the people under the age of 30, both target groups for Democrats.

And there is a fear that the Democrats could lose seats in November, and not have the numbers necessary to pass it. I think it does sort of short-circuit the military chiefs’ review.

MARK SHIELDS: I really do. I think it preordains the results somewhat.

But it was — it is a sea change and it — for a more tolerant nation.


David, Mark, thank you both.

DAVID BROOKS: Thank you.