TOPICS > Politics

Shields, Brooks on War Powers Debate, Obama’s Inner Circle, Bachmann

June 17, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks weigh in on the week's top political news, including the debate over congressional approval for the U.S. mission in Libya, the state of deficit talks, the "insular" inner circle surrounding President Obama and Michele Bachmann's GOP debate performance.
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JIM LEHRER: And to the analysis of Shields and Brooks, syndicated columnist Mark Shields, New York Times columnist David Brooks.

David, where do you come down on the Libya war powers issue?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I understand from Sen. Reid the war will be over before you know it.

JIM LEHRER: That’s it, just like that, yes.

DAVID BROOKS: So, that’s good news. It might be a moot question.

I’m not a huge fan of the War Powers Act. I think the president needs to have the ability to do what he needs to do, without 435 secretaries of state, or 535. Nonetheless, I don’t see why you can’t just talk to Congress and get them involved in the process. It seems to me it’s very smart to do that.

You avoid confrontations like this. You make them feel a part of it, so, if things go bad, they have been part of it from the beginning. And I don’t think the Obama administration has done that. And then to compound matters, in the past week, they have said what is happening in Libya is not really — quote — “hostilities.”

And that is just laughable. They are — we are dropping bombs on people. They are hostilities. And so the defense has just been ludicrous. And I think it flows from an inability to communicate and get people on board and especially members of Congress. And so I have some limited, very limited sympathy right now for the Obama administration.

JIM LEHRER: Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: The War Powers Act, just to understand it, it grew out of 1973 out of the Vietnam War.

And it requires the president, after taking military action, he has 60 days to seek the consultation of Congress. And…

JIM LEHRER: You don’t have to get it ahead of time.

MARK SHIELDS: He doesn’t have to get it ahead of time, have to get authorization from Congress, but it doesn’t require a vote. That’s the loophole. That has always been the loophole. So, the — really, the 435 secretaries of state are not real.

Everybody is for the War Powers Act until they become president. The record is replete with Sen. Obama talking about the need, the urgent need, unlike the Bush administration, for a president to consult and seek the cooperation and collegiality of Congress before military — and how much more successful it is, which it is.

If you’re in on the takeoff, historically, then it’s a lot — makes the tough landing a lot easier to accept, if the Congress has been part of it. But I was struck as well by Sen. Reid just kind of doing a little zigzag and open-field running by saying, well, it’s going to be over, so it’s not even an issue. It will be over before you know it.

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

MARK SHIELDS: I think the administration is making a mistake by…

JIM LEHRER: Why do you think they made it? Why — why — what — do you have any — any idea why they didn’t just go to Congress before they did this? Or was there — was it — it couldn’t have been an oversight.

MARK SHIELDS: No, no, it wasn’t an oversight.

But I do think that the administration — I think one thing, that they thought it was going to be — it was going to be a lot easier going in. I mean, like, I think they thought Libya was going to be an awful lot easier than it has been. They thought it would topple. I mean, this is, what — now we’re up to almost approaching three months, aren’t we, on it.

JIM LEHRER: But what is your reading, David, as to why the administration didn’t, as you say, as a common courtesy, if nothing else… to be in on it?

DAVID BROOKS: Especially when you have just castigated the previous administration for being unilateral. And they make the Bush administration look like models of consultation.

And I guess I would have to say a couple of things. First, they thought there would be resistance, and they didn’t want to have a big national debate. They just wanted to do it. And, remember, to be fair to them, they were in the middle of a lot of international pressure: We have got to act right now.

But, as Mark says, they didn’t have to — it wouldn’t have prevented the action to prevent the massacre in Benghazi. They would have had 60 days. But, secondly — and this is a deeper problem with the administration — there’s been a general lack of communication, a surprising lack of communication, given how many people, especially early in the administration who worked on Capitol Hill, even within the Democratic ranks.

I think the administration has not been as communicative. I think the president is very good at having a tight circle of intimate friends, and he meets a lot of people casually. But he doesn’t have acquaintances as much as he should, which is to say, he doesn’t have a lot of people he calls occasionally, including people — members of Congress. And I think there’s sort of an insularity, to some degree, which pervades a lot of issues.

JIM LEHRER: I had the feeling — I don’t know what you thought, Mark and David, but what — also, when Sen. Reid was talking about the Afghan — Afghanistan troop withdrawal, that he seemed to be — it was kind of “we” and “they” and “I don’t really know what’s going on here.”

And Dick Durbin, who is his number two, is — is saying, essentially, what a lot of the Republicans are saying on the Afghanistan thing.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes. And when you asked him if he had expressed it to the president, he said, well, I have made it known to the people in the White House.

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

MARK SHIELDS: It doesn’t sound like there are continuing casual conversations — or not casual conversations, just…

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree with David’s overall point, though, that they don’t communicate well?

MARK SHIELDS: I do. I mean, I do. I think that it is probably reflected in his golf foursomes.

If you look at who the president plays golf with — finally, he’s playing golf with Speaker Boehner this weekend. But it’s been used essentially as totally recreational for the president. There’s nothing social, political, or even cerebral about it. He plays with a small group of people all the time.

And, so, it isn’t a sense of reaching out and getting different points of view. And I think that has been a criticism of Democrats, of Democratic senators, of people even within the administration, that it is insular.

JIM LEHRER: What about the point that Speaker Boehner is the one who has really raised this war powers issue? And there have been other issues, similar issues been raised by Republicans.

Have the Republicans become more dovish than they are normally considered to be, and we didn’t notice it?

DAVID BROOKS: Right.

Well, first, there’s always — institutions matter more than ideology often. If you’re speaker, you’re going to be protective of the War Powers Act, because it gives your branch, the legislative branch, power.

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

DAVID BROOKS: The second…

MARK SHIELDS: Sen. Reid didn’t. He wasn’t institutional.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVID BROOKS: OK.

JIM LEHRER: That’s true.

DAVID BROOKS: Well, that’s true.

DAVID BROOKS: He’s in the president’s party. Sometimes, party trumps institution.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVID BROOKS: And then there’s where you sit. If you’re out of power, you’re always going to be less interventionist than if you’re in power. The party in power controls the Pentagon — or the party in the White House.

And so — and they have to meet with other world leader, and they tend to do things internationally. The party that is out of party tends to be much less internationalist. And this is true of the Republican Party. If you go back to the Clinton years, when he was doing Kosovo, the Republican Party back then was very suspicious of these actions abroad.

So, it’s the natural state of the party in opposition to be this way. But I do think there has been a shift generally away from President Bush in the Republican Party in many different spheres, some of it associated with spending, but some of it associated with his foreign policy.

And so there has been this shift. And Jon Huntsman, in the debate this week, exemplified it, sort of a shift away from an aggressive belief in using power to spread democracy and freedom and that sort of thing.

JIM LEHRER: Mark, a new subject: the Biden negotiations. You heard — again, you heard what Sen. Reid had to say. What can you add or subtract to that? Do you think they’re going to — they’re going to make a deal? Do you see a deal there?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I mean, it’s – Sen. Reid urged them to meet more often…

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

MARK SHIELDS: … and to ignore the institutional, again, the House and Senate, recesses and just meet constantly.

You know, I have the distinct feeling that it will come right down to the wire. And…

JIM LEHRER: One of these midnight deals?

MARK SHIELDS: One of the midnight deals. And I don’t see it being resolved before that.

On the question of the Republicans, Jim…

JIM LEHRER: Sure.

MARK SHIELDS: … I just think that there isn’t that imperative anymore that the only way you prove that you’re tough on terrorism is to go in and start a new war. I think that…

JIM LEHRER: That’s over?

MARK SHIELDS: That’s over. I think it’s no longer present, that you can do it.

JIM LEHRER: Republican or Democrat?

MARK SHIELDS: Republican or Democrat. And when you’re talking about $2 billion a week is what Afghanistan is, and you’re talking about cutting back on expenditures at home, and cutting, whether it’s Women, Infants and Children, or cutting food safety or whatever else, it’s kind of tough to make that case, when you — we still don’t know how we would know the success or the failure of our mission in Afghanistan.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree with that?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I agree.

And going back to the Biden thing, there is a — we’re in a period of austerity, a long-term period of austerity, and every issue gets filtered through that. And money just comes in. And whether it should or it shouldn’t, it’s going to come into when we talk about health care, when we talk about a jobs program in the middle of a recession, or Afghanistan.

Now, on the Biden thing, I think it’s going to go past midnight.

JIM LEHRER: Oh.

DAVID BROOKS: I think — first of all, I’m very pessimistic about it.

JIM LEHRER: We’re going to have a crisis. Yes.

DAVID BROOKS: I think Wall Street is vastly underpricing the possibility. And it will either be we will have something three days after or a week after or perhaps longer after.

I don’t — I don’t see — you hear various things about what’s happening in the room. But I really don’t see cause for a big deal. I was actually quite struck by what Sen. Reid said about wanting to have a $3 trillion, not just $2 trillion, $3 trillion. Well, where — what exactly is going to make up the $3 trillion?

Maybe if you spread it out over 100 years, you can get $3 trillion. But — so, that suggests to me that Sen. Reid is interested in something big, as a lot of people are, but exactly how you’re going to identify $3 trillion in cuts, that’s tough.

JIM LEHRER: Finally, before we go, the Republican presidential nomination debate this week, what — were there winners and losers? Was it a significant event?

MARK SHIELDS: It was a significant event. Everybody’s on the stage. You have got a clear front-runner at this point in most surveys, and that’s Mitt Romney. We don’t know if he’s got a glass jaw, if he can take a punch, because there were no punches thrown any time at him.

Any time you go into a debate as the front-runner, and nobody lays a glove on you, you come out, it’s to your advantage. Tim Pawlenty, the — in many people’s mind, the principal challenger to him, made the strategic or tactical mistake — maybe both — on a Sunday morning show of saying something confrontational, aggressive about — about Romney, and setting up the terms for the debate on Monday night, and then, when he was asked about it Monday night, backed off: No, no, I didn’t want to discuss it.

JIM LEHRER: That was the Massachusetts health care bill.

MARK SHIELDS: Health care. Had a little 2:00 courage, as we used to call it in the saloon, where a guy, after a couple of belts, I will tell you what I’m going to tell him…

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

MARK SHIELDS: … and then, when he had a chance to tell him, didn’t tell him.

JIM LEHRER: What about — the conventional wisdom among the pundits was that Michele Bachmann came out well in the debate. Do you agree with that?

DAVID BROOKS: I do. She came across as a very — as a serious player. Maybe it was a low bar. But she came across as a serious, polished person who actually came to the room with a plan, and executed the plan.

And you would think they would all do that, but, somehow, they all don’t.

JIM LEHRER: You mean executed a debate plan, you mean?

DAVID BROOKS: Right. She knew what she was going to do, and then she did it.

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

DAVID BROOKS: And she seemed like a reasonably serious person.

She has got tremendous advantages. She’s the only clear conservative Christian candidate. And then she’s also the most anti-Washington candidate imaginable. And, so, those are two strong things, quivers in her arrow.

I just — one thing about Tim Pawlenty…

JIM LEHRER: Sure.

DAVID BROOKS: … what struck me about him was he doesn’t understand the theory of his own candidacy.

The is strongest thing about Pawlenty is his biography, and he knows this, which is that his father was a truck driver, his mom died when he was young, working-class roots. And then he gives you an economic plan which is completely corporate.

And so why doesn’t he give you an agenda that actually matches his biography, which is a working-class biography? And that would make his job in debates a lot easier, if he had a coherent message with an agenda attached.

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

MARK SHIELDS: I will tell you one quick thing about Michele Bachmann.

JIM LEHRER: Make it quick, please.

MARK SHIELDS: OK.

And that is, there is a great constituency in the Republican Party in 2012. And Donald Trump tapped into it, and he got traction and great vertical lift by being the most aggressively anti-Barack Obama candidate. That’s the only thing that propelled his candidacy.

And…

JIM LEHRER: And Michele Bachmann…

MARK SHIELDS: I think Michele Bachmann embodies that better than anybody else in there. But there is a real constituency within the Republican Party in 2012 for that.

JIM LEHRER: OK.

Thank you both very much.