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Shields, Brooks on GOP Tax Divide, Obama’s Troop Drawdown, Debt Ceiling Debate

June 24, 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 breakdown in bipartisan budget and deficit talks, the House's rebuke of President Obama over war powers and the Libya mission, and the president's new troop withdrawal timetable for the Afghan war.

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

David, how do you see the Republican divide on taxes?

DAVID BROOKS: Tom Coburn is completely right, and Grover Norquist is completely wrong.

If you’re going to have a deal, there’s going to have to be revenue as part of it. It doesn’t mean you have to raise rates, but it does mean you have to raise revenue by closing loopholes. And the loopholes that they’re now talking about as part of the budget deal are technical things about closing loopholes on corporate taxes for a plane and things like that.

They’re not raising rates. They are not anything that’s going to hurt growth. And so, if you’re going to do a deal, if you’re going to cut the size of government, which will be part of the deal, you have to raise revenue. And Grover is wrong on the economics. He’s wrong factually.

He said that only Coburn really wants to raise revenues. I have had several Republican senators say to me, hey, I signed Grover’s pledge, but as part of this deal, I know we need to raise rates, and I’m going to go back on it.

And it would be good for the country. It would be bad for Grover’s interest group, but it would — it’s absolutely — Coburn is absolutely right.

JIM LEHRER: What about the Republican Party? Would it be bad for the Republican Party?

MARK SHIELDS: No, I mean, I was thinking as we watched that piece with Judy…


MARK SHIELDS: … Vin Weber represents the district — I mean, was reasonable and thoughtful, it struck me, and reflective, and very problem-solving. That district is now represented by Michele Bachmann. So…

JIM LEHRER: In Minnesota, right, yes.

MARK SHIELDS: It tells you something about how Minnesota Republicans may have changed in that time.

No, I think, Jim, that what we see here is that, over the last 60 years, last 60 years, really, since the Truman administration, the highest percentage of gross domestic product that the government has spent is today, all right, the highest percentage, 25.6 percent of the gross domestic product, which is higher than it is historically and naturally.

And the lowest percentage of gross domestic product that we have ever collected in taxes is this year. Now, I mean, to sit here and say that we’re going to resolve it by just cutting spending, which has to be cut, no question about it, but without cutting — without increasing taxes — increasing revenues — because we don’t want to say taxes — I just think it’s sheer folly. I mean, I think it — you’re listening — in Never Never Land.

JIM LEHRER: But that’s not only Grover Norquist, David, Mark. There’s also the leader — the Republican leader of the United States Senate. There’s John Boehner, the House speaker. They have all said no deal on this debt ceiling deal if there is revenue enhancement or increased revenue in there.


And so the ultimate question here is, who is playing games? Grover believes what he believes. He’s completely sincere.

JIM LEHRER: Sure. Sure.

DAVID BROOKS: When McConnell and Cantor and those guys and Boehner are talking, that’s part of the show. We’re in the middle of show season.

And the — Cantor walked out of this Biden commission.


DAVID BROOKS: That was part of the show. It was part of the show to get — to get Obama to come forward with a plan and have some meetings, which he’s doing.

It was part of the show to tell people in the Republican Party, we’re really fighting for you. We’re really fighting for you. It was part for the Democratic shooting, so they could say, hey, look, this is really blowing up. We’re really fighting for you.

And so the question to me — and this is the crucial question — is, when they say no revenue, are they saying that now and then, at the last moment, on Aug. 2, or whatever it is going to be, they’re going to say, we fought hard, we got a lot, we held tough, and we really got a great deal but then…

JIM LEHRER: You’re going to have to do a little revenue stuff?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, as part of that.


DAVID BROOKS: And so I — the question is, how much of that is 100 percent conviction, how much of that is part of the show? And I confess I don’t know the answer to that.

JIM LEHRER: Do you know the answer, Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: I do, Jim, but I can’t tell you right now. No.


JIM LEHRER: Hey, look, we — hey, David — just tell David and me. We won’t tell anybody.


MARK SHIELDS: The — David is right, in that — I think where he may be a little bit optimistic is Republicans in the House.

I think there’s probably 60 percent of the Republicans in the House who will not vote for any revenue increase. And this drives John Boehner to the reality that, if he’s going to pass anything out of the House on the debt limit, he needs Democratic votes. And so this forces it.

I thought that — I thought that Cantor, Eric Cantor, looked a little small walking out of that meeting. I mean, American voters, particularly independents, want people working together. And there was a certain air of petulance on it. I know he’s trying to kick it upstairs.

JIM LEHRER: Kick it up.

MARK SHIELDS: He kicks it upstairs to Boehner, the speaker. He also kicks it upstairs to the president and brings the president in.

And this is — this has got a skittishness on the part of Democrats, because they think the president was more than accommodating last December when it came to the extension of the Bush tax cuts to agree on the budget that got us through the first four months of this past year.

JIM LEHRER: Well, what do you see the entrance of President Obama, well, the effect of that? Well, do you think — is that — is this — are we getting close to an end here? Do you think a deal can now be made? Or…

MARK SHIELDS: I think the end will come at the end. I think…

JIM LEHRER: Midnight August the 2nd?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, maybe even beyond. I think…

JIM LEHRER: Do a temporary thing or something?

MARK SHIELDS: But, right now, what we have, Jim, is we have an American public that doesn’t believe the debt ceiling ought to be — every measurement, by 2-1, they do not think it ought to be raised, Democrats, Republicans, independents.

And what you have got to do is convince people of the consequences if it isn’t raised. And that means that the fighting people that Bob Gates discussed with you in the interview last night who are taking all the strain, stress, and sacrifice, they won’t be paid. Their families won’t be paid. Social Security won’t be paid.

And they have got to drive that home. This is going to force the president to do something which the president is reluctant to do. And that’s lay out rather bright lines what he’s for. He likes to play — be the ultimate conciliator, bringing people together. It’s a natural role for him and one he does quite well. But this, I think, forces him out.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, I think this has been one of the core weaknesses of his presidency, that he has not gotten out on front of this issue.

If you look at what — the way Chris Christie governed New Jersey, you may not like the bill he passed into law this week, but he was out there with 30 town hall meeting, with charts, with explaining, here’s our situation, and here’s my plan.

I think that’s the way you lead. And I don’t Obama has done this. I don’t understand the passivity, except it’s become part of a pattern for the administration. But, at some point, he has got to get out and explain, A., here’s our debt situation; B., here’s the seriousness of the — if we default.

JIM LEHRER: If we — yes.

DAVID BROOKS: And no one else can do that. And, hopefully, he will start to do it, but he really hasn’t. And he hasn’t taken any risks.

And until he takes a risk, the Republicans are really hesitant to take any risks. And just — so, finally, I’m not too worried about what’s happening this week about the walkouts.


DAVID BROOKS: That’s part of the script. But I am very pessimistic — or moderately pessimistic about this coming next couple months. I really think they’re much farther away than we all assume.

If you talk to conventional wisdom around here, conventional wisdom on Wall Street, everyone says, oh, the effects are so catastrophic, they will never not do a deal.

I think it’s possible that we will have a period…

JIM LEHRER: You think it’s possible?

MARK SHIELDS: I think, in the final analysis, we may — we may go a week or two weeks or even, you know — and have to see some of the dire consequences.

But I just remind people that, in the past 20 years, there was a little short fellow with a buzz haircut from Texas who walked out with some charts named Ross Perot. And he not only took that issue. He put it on the national agenda and forced both parties to address it…

JIM LEHRER: To deal with it.

MARK SHIELDS: … and led in the polls.

It can be done. And that was at a time when the consequences were far less severe than they are now.

JIM LEHRER: The Libya votes today, what do you make of that?

MARK SHIELDS: I think the votes are institutional, constitutional, political, and personal. Institutional in the sense that the House is upset that they just haven’t been consulted by the White House, constitutional…

JIM LEHRER: And you talked about that last week, and the two of you kind of agreed with that.



MARK SHIELDS: And constitutional because…

JIM LEHRER: Kind of agreed — don’t you love that?

MARK SHIELDS: Kind of agreed. I like that. That was good.


MARK SHIELDS: That was kind of — kind of glossed it over.

But part of it is personal. They feel that the White House has dissed them and been indifferent to them, and on both sides of the aisle. And part of it is political. It’s a chance to establish some daylight, put the other side, the Democratic president, if you’re a Republican, in an awkward role.

But it’s not an insignificant vote. It’s not going to become law, because the Senate…


JIM LEHRER: As Judy — I mean, as Jeff said in his discussion…

MARK SHIELDS: That’s right, and Todd and Norman did in their segment.


MARK SHIELDS: But it’s not — it’s not inconsequential. I mean, and it does reflect…

JIM LEHRER: Symbols do matter?

MARK SHIELDS: Symbols do matter. And it reflects public opinion. I mean, public opinion has just — on Libya, for example, has switched 20 points between March, according to Gallup, and today.

JIM LEHRER: That’s a remarkable change, yes.


JIM LEHRER: How do you see this?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, I kind of agree with Mark.

JIM LEHRER: Kind of agree with Mark?

DAVID BROOKS: He’s kind of right.

JIM LEHRER: Kind of agree with Mark.


No, I — first of all, I completely understand where the Congress is coming from. In the first place, they were not consulted. The second place, Obama — and this should be more scandalous than it is — sort of overruled some of the lawyers in his own administration, came up with this cockamamie idea that these are not hostilities.

On the other hand, the idea of sending a signal to Gadhafi that we’re divided at this moment, to me, that’s — that hurts our effort. And the idea that the Congress can run a war like this, that also, I think, is unwise.

And so I understand where they’re coming from. Nonetheless, I do think the signals they’re sending can only reassure the people who are potentially defecting from Gadhafi’s government that, well, maybe those guys aren’t as serious.


All right, speaking of wars, what do you — how does the president’s decision on Afghan troop withdrawal look to you now, a few days later?

MARK SHIELDS: I don’t think it achieved the clarity of purpose or mission that was needed. I don’t think he energized his own supporters. And I — I think…

JIM LEHRER: His own supporters…

MARK SHIELDS: His own supporters who are dubious and…

JIM LEHRER: And want the war…

MARK SHIELDS: Want the war over.

JIM LEHRER: … wound down sooner and…

MARK SHIELDS: That’s right. Exactly.


MARK SHIELDS: And the base of his party as he’s going into an election.

I mean, I just — I didn’t think it — there was nobody who said let us march behind this leader after that speech, or now I understand what we’re about.


MARK SHIELDS: Our objectives in Afghanistan have gotten progressively smaller. No longer, a functioning democracy is mentioned.

It’s basically, if they can have — put the Taliban on the defensive before we get to the negotiating table, so we don’t have to give away too much in the negotiations, and to get a big enough police force. That really seems to be the objectives.

JIM LEHRER: But it was labeled a compromise between those who wanted a — the Democrat — the more Democrats — the Democrats who wanted it quicker and bigger, the withdrawal, and then those who wanted no — little or no withdrawal, which is what the military…

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. Well, sometimes compromises are coherent, and sometimes they’re incoherent.

And I think this is on the incoherent side. If you really want to go with the drone, what Biden wants, then you shrink down to a pretty small force and you send out a lot of drones. If you want to go with what Petraeus wants, a complete counterinsurgency, you go with the surge.

And he’s stuck in the middle there with 70,000 troops, which is too much for Biden, too little for Petraeus. So, I’m not sure what it’s about. Are we trying to just create what they call fortress Kabul, where we just protect Kabul over the long term, and the rest of the country does what it can, or are we trying to protect the whole country? I’m not quite sure what the answer to that is.

I think the best reading was when Mullen said that the risks are higher that we surrender the areas outside of Kabul, the Kandahars and those areas, and that the Taliban does eventually retake those areas. It’s not certain it’s going to happen, but the risks are higher.

And so I think that’s a warning that raising those risks and letting the Taliban take over those areas would be a humiliation and sort of a moral problem.

JIM LEHRER: What did you think about what Gates said last night on the program here about that he believes it is possible to negotiate a peace with the Taliban?

MARK SHIELDS: He did. I did hear him say that. And he…

JIM LEHRER: He wasn’t saying that a few weeks ago.

MARK SHIELDS: No, he wasn’t saying that a few weeks ago.

And he, I thought, gave a better defense of the president’s position than the president had given. I mean, in a strange way, both he and Gen. Petraeus strengthened the president’s position afterwards, in Gen. Petraeus’ testimony on the Hill and Bob Gates’ testimony to you.

But what struck me most about what Bob Gates said was emphasizing that 99 percent of the stress, strain, sacrifice is all on the troops.


MARK SHIELDS: And if you really care about them, do something for a family.

JIM LEHRER: War is an abstraction to most Americans, yes. Yes, that’s his point.

Well, thank you both very much.