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Shields, Brooks on ‘Discouraging’ Jobs Report, Debt Debate, Romney vs. Palin

June 3, 2011 at 12:00 AM EST
Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks discuss the week's top political news, including the "discouraging" May jobs report, how unemployment could affect the debt-ceiling debate in Washington and how GOP candidate Mitt Romney might fare in races against Sarah Palin and President Obama.
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JIM LEHRER: And to the analysis of Shields and Brooks, syndicated columnist Mark Shields, New York Times columnist David Brooks.

Mark, how do you read the politics of these bad job numbers today?

MARK SHIELDS: They’re not disappointing, Jim; they’re discouraging.

These are — everybody knew, economists agreed this was not a strong recovery, but they thought it was a recovery. And now there’s a serious question about that. Any time there’s open speculation about whether — the possibility, even, of a double-dip recession, that’s a blow to consumer confidence, which is key to our economic well-being.

Most devastating figure to me is this, that 45 percent of the unemployed Americans — there’s 13.2 Americans — million Americans who are unemployed — 45 percent of them have been unemployed for at least 27 weeks.

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

MARK SHIELDS: That’s — that’s the highest total ever recorded. The highest previously was 1983, when one-quarter of those had been out that long. These are people for whom you wonder, are jobs ever coming back?

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

What do you think, David?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, and it’s also going to affect the psychology.

I saw a chart recently where they asked people over decades, how big do you think your raise will be next year? In the 80s, it was like six percent. In the 90s, it was three percent. Now it’s down to like one percent. So, people even with jobs just aren’t expecting that much.

And so I think it widens the scope of the possible, if we do have, maybe not a double-dip, but just a long, slow period of very slow job growth — people are very discouraged. People are upset about institutions. And that means they could go any which way.

And so I don’t know how they will react to — if there is this period of long, slow growth, but there will be discouragement, depression, and, as a result, a possible reaction that none of us can predict.

JIM LEHRER: What about — the Republican leadership obviously criticized President Obama for his reaction. And they didn’t — didn’t directly blame him, but came pretty close.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes.

JIM LEHRER: But that’s — that’s to be expected, is it not?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, that’s their campaign. Romney had this slogan which will be the slogan we will probably hear for the next year-and-a-half, which was he inherited a bad economy and he made it worse. And that will be their main charge.

And Obama’s counter will have to be, if it stays like this, it would have been worse without me. And that’s just an absolutely terrible way to run a campaign: It would have been worse without me.

And so Republicans are going to hit this. I think, in the Republican race, if there is a slow recession, it helps Mitt Romney. This is sort of in his wheelhouse, if the focus is on jobs, it’s less than health care, which is his weakness.

And then one other factor I think this will influence us over the next several weeks, I think it will make it much harder to have a deal on a debt ceiling.

JIM LEHRER: Why?

DAVID BROOKS: Because I think, in a weak recession, Democrats and some others are going to be very, very hesitant to cut spending. They will say we need this spending to sort of pump the prime — or prime the pump. And so that will — that’s another effect, I think.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree with that, that it’s going to be — the Democrats are going to have problems with this from a psychological standpoint, but they’re also going to have a reality problem with this, are they not?

MARK SHIELDS: A reality problem.

Historically, with numbers like this, the Democrats’ response would be, boy, this is — this really proves we need to have some stimulus spending, deficit spending. The debate…

JIM LEHRER: Cash for clunkers again or…

MARK SHIELDS: Well, or just — I mean, I was just thinking today, why not national competitiveness, national security? We know that our bridges and our roads and our highways and our airports need this work. I mean, it would be a natural sort of fitting into America’s competitiveness and all the rest of it.

But there isn’t the political will, and there doesn’t seem to be the political belief, a conviction on the part of the Democrats. And on the part of the Republicans, their response is, this proves we have to cut spending more, which, you know, is counterintuitive to many of us who believe that the government has a role as a stimulating agent at times like this.

But there’s no question that I think it makes the chances of a deal less, and — but I think they were hurt by the results of the 26th District in New York last week, where Medicare was the issue, and the Democrats felt that it worked to their advantage and to the Republicans’ disadvantage. And Republicans felt the same thing.

So, I think the chances of a grand deal were probably hurt by that as well.

JIM LEHRER: What about David’s point that the Obama retort on this is going to be, well, things are bad; they would have been worse if I hadn’t — if I hadn’t done what I did?

That’s a — you agree with David that’s a hard sell?

MARK SHIELDS: It’s a next-to-impossible sell. I mean, it is very difficult. Less elegantly, it was put by Barney Frank earlier that it’s tough to run for reelection on: Things would have sucked worse if we hadn’t been there.

And that’s — that’s really — and it’s just an impossible — and it’s — what’s missing from this campaign — and I heard Mitt Romney yesterday, and I think this is in many respects, this is tailor-made for him.

I mean, if you’re not talking about social and cultural issues, and you’re not talking about health care, you are talking about the economy and business. And that plays to the strengths of his resume.

But you know what’s missing? The Republicans are looking for a Reagan. They’re always looking for a Reagan. That’s fine. And Democrats are always looking for a Kennedy or a Roosevelt. But there’s no optimism. There really isn’t, in either party. I mean, that is missing.

And whatever you say about Ronald Reagan or Jack Kennedy or Bill Clinton, they projected almost a contagious optimism. Now, maybe it’s just bowing to reality, but don’t you think it’s missing from…

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, I do think it’s missing.

I saw Tim Pawlenty. I thought he had a very fine rollout. But had a video to launch his campaign, and it was sort of black and white. It was sort of dour. They have to come up with that.

But, you know, a couple things. One is neither party really has an agenda, a growth agenda. And the Republicans say, if we cut spending, we cut taxes, do tax reform, that will create growth. But that’s sort of macro growth. I don’t think it will have any big short-term impact.

And on the president’s side, you know, he says, you know, we have got these terrible economic problems. We have got middle-class stagnation. I’m going to offer you some solar panels and light-rail. There’s just a disjunction between the size of the problem and the scope of the solutions.

And so, I do think there’s sort of no big plans out there. And we’re probably, and certainly, going to run into a very traditional campaign where Republicans are going to say, let’s get government out of the way, and Democrats are going to say, let’s invest in basic research and light-rail and some smart energy.

JIM LEHRER: You heard it. You just heard it, yes.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes.

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

DAVID BROOKS: And so that — that’s — you know, it’s a traditional campaign. I wouldn’t say it’s particularly novel. And so people are going to be faced with very orthodox choices.

JIM LEHRER: Fit Mitt Romney into that.

DAVID BROOKS: Well, Romney is running a very orthodox campaign.

JIM LEHRER: Well, and that’s perfect, then, for him, right?

DAVID BROOKS: For him, it’s: Obama is endangering capitalism. He wants to take us in a more European direction — which has been a Republican talking point — and I’m going to get government out of the way.

And that’s fine. That is a Republican gospel. But if you looked at the Republicans who actually won, George Bush had compassionate conservatism. It was a little different. John McCain was a little different. There were some sort of ideological wrinkles there.

In this — this year, I think, in both parties, we will see absolutely no wrinkles. It will be a very classic race, as the Republicans just say: That guy messed up. We’re not going to offend anybody. We’re just going to try to get government out of the way.

So…

JIM LEHRER: But then — yes.

MARK SHIELDS: On Mitt Romney…

JIM LEHRER: I was going to mention Sarah Palin.

MARK SHIELDS: OK. Sure.

MARK SHIELDS: Let me just first address Mitt Romney.

Mitt Romney is the pragmatist, but he’s running in a party of true believers. And that’s — he’s a pragmatic choice in many respects. He’s been a governor. He’s been a business executive. Those are certainly qualifications that not simply Republicans, but that voters like. And, at a time when the economy is the only issue, or the dominant, transcendent issue, that is in his area of greatest strength.

He’s also a candidate, Jim, who doesn’t inspire great animosity. He’s not a polarizing candidate. He doesn’t inspire great enthusiasm either, unlike…

JIM LEHRER: He’s not an emotional candidate, yes.

MARK SHIELDS: But Sarah Palin, 40 percent, according to Andy Kohut’s survey of Republicans, Republican-leaning voters, 40 percent wouldn’t vote for her under any — now, she has a far more enthusiastic core constituency than Mitt Romney has.

The other thing Mitt Romney has going for him — and let’s not overlook it — as Mark Hanna, the great Republican leader said, “There are two things that matter in politics. The first is money, and I can’t remember the second.”

And Mitt Romney has the ability to raise money. He raised $10 million in one day. And he’s going to have enough money to run a first-rate campaign.

DAVID BROOKS: He has got some very serious weaknesses, though.

And supporting health care — a lot of Republicans say, we don’t know what the economy will be like, but the one issue we have is health care. And Mitt Romney sort of negates that. And you can imagine an Obama-Romney debate where Romney says, let’s repeal Obamacare, and Obama says, wait, you passed it first, so what are you talking about?

So, that’s a problem.

JIM LEHRER: That’s the first 20 minutes. That’s it, right?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. So, that’s sort of a big problem on the core issue for a lot of Republicans.

The second one is, in — for a lot of Republicans, for a lot of Americans, there is much more hostility to Wall Street than there was four years ago. And as the founder — as the head of Bain Capital, he sort of symbolizes that. People will use the fact that he supported the TARP, the Wall Street bailout, so-called. They will use that against him.

And I would say he doesn’t generate much enthusiasm, as Mark said. There’s not much hostility, but for a nominee, astonishingly little enthusiasm. So, he has weaknesses to go along with the strengths. He has strengths, too.

JIM LEHRER: Sure. Sure.

MARK SHIELDS: The problem, just to David’s point, is that Bain Capital, where he did make his money, or he does have his business cred, street cred in business, they were known for closing down companies and downsizing.

So, at a time when jobs — I think jobs are going to be biggest issue, rather than health care. Health care is a core Republican galvanizing and organizing principle, but, if you’re talking about the electorate at large, it really is jobs and the economy.

JIM LEHRER: What do you — what do you make of Sarah Palin’s bus tour to historic sites?

MARK SHIELDS: Sarah Palin has enormous appeal. She’s charismatic.

But I think even her strongest supporters in 2008 acknowledged that she wasn’t then quite ready, in spite of her other attributes, political skills, for prime time, and that it was — it was just very straightforward. If she was going to be a national figure, she had to steep herself in information and knowledge and policy.

She hasn’t done that. She has spent the time in a different way, I’m sure for personal happiness. But, I mean, it’s hard to consider her a serious political player, I mean, at this time, because her only policy is attacking the “lamestream media,” which is fine.

But at least Mitt Romney has a health care plan.

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

MARK SHIELDS: And Tim Pawlenty has an economic plan.

JIM LEHRER: Yes, but, then why is she doing this bus tour?

DAVID BROOKS: She’s in the media business. She’s in our business, except for she has a bus.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVID BROOKS: So — and so, you know, I see no evidence she’s going to run. I think every second we spend on her is a second of our lives we will never have back. So, it’s sort of temporary euthanasia. I don’t know why — I just don’t think she’s going to run.

Rudy Giuliani may well run. He’s made some serious efforts. But Sarah Palin, she’s in the media business. And so she attracts a lot of attention.

JIM LEHRER: And anything that hasn’t been said needs to be said about John Edwards?

MARK SHIELDS: John Edwards is essentially running the same defense that Bill Clinton did, which — interesting, with the same lawyer, Greg Craig. And that is that: What I did may have been morally reprehensible, and probably was, but it wasn’t illegal and it wasn’t criminal.

JIM LEHRER: Wasn’t illegal.

MARK SHIELDS: And that’s going to be his — his position.

DAVID BROOKS: He happens to be right about that, I think.

Campaign donations are campaign donations. Giving money or shoveling money to friends or mistresses, that’s not a campaign donation. So, I think he’s right about that.

JIM LEHRER: But?

DAVID BROOKS: But that doesn’t make him Mr. Wonderful, yes…

JIM LEHRER: Yes. Yes.

MARK SHIELDS: And he’s trying to hang on to his legal ticket, I’m sure.

JIM LEHRER: Yes. Yes.

I mean, it’s amazing when you think that he ran for president, and he was a vice presidential nominee, and all of that.

MARK SHIELDS: Absolutely.

JIM LEHRER: Well, thank you. And I look forward to seeing you all on most Friday nights as we move ahead together.

MARK SHIELDS: All right.

DAVID BROOKS: Good.

JIM LEHRER: Thank you.

MARK SHIELDS: Thank you.