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Shields and Brooks on the New Congress, Obama’s Staff Revamp

January 7, 2011 at 4:28 PM EDT
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The 112th Congress has convened and President Obama has started making big changes to his senior staff. Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks assess these and other top political headlines.
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JIM LEHRER: And to the analysis of Shields and Brooks, syndicated columnist Mark Shields, New York Times columnist David Brooks.

Well, here they are, a new Congress, the 112th Congress. What should we expect, sir?

DAVID BROOKS: Drama. I mean, you have got these guys coming — men and women coming in who have a strong belief: Government is out of control. We’re going to cut it back.

And then they’re going to come into a constitutional system which frustrates clear action and forces compromise. They’re also going to confront a series of bills, most notably the raising of the debt limit, which is actually going to force action and prevent gridlock to avoid a catastrophe.

And so they are going to face a challenge to be true to their principles, but to actually compromise in a system that frustrates clear action. And while the leadership is trying to force them to make these compromises inside the Congress, people like Glenn Beck and Mark Levin and some of the talk show hosts are going to be beating the crap out them.

And so this is going to be a very interesting few months.

JIM LEHRER: A very interesting few months, Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: I think it will be, Jim. And I don’t disagree with David’s assessment, in the spirit of comity, of the new session, the new year.

JIM LEHRER: In other words, you agree with…

MARK SHIELDS: The gentleman — the gentleman from Pennsylvania.

JIM LEHRER: … the spirit of the new Congress.

MARK SHIELDS: I do. I agree with him.

But I do think that the real tension and the real drama is going to be on John Boehner’s side of the aisle. I mean, he’s got his hands full. The Democrats are probably more united than they have been. They are in the minority. That minority’s role, is to be — it’s a lot easier to be united when are you in the minority.

But John Boehner has problems with those Tea Party folks.

JIM LEHRER: The Renaccis of this world?

MARK SHIELDS: And not simply Renacci. I mean, he is an example.

JIM LEHRER: Sure.

MARK SHIELDS: But I think that the freshman Republicans came here with the idea that to cooperate is to collaborate, and to collaborate is to be open to charges of not being totally patriotic and committed.

I mean, I think that’s been the watchword of the Tea Parties.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, I’m not convinced of that yet.

JIM LEHRER: No?

DAVID BROOKS: I mean, you take a guy like Renacci, who ran a business, was CPA. I find, so far, they tend to be, personally, quite impressive people. They have had careers. A lot of them were state legislators. A lot of them ran businesses.

They are not sort of wild-eyed people who were screaming at summer meetings about health care. They tend to have been leaders in their community. They were not — remember, they were recruited to run for these offices. And it was Republicans in Washington who were recruiting a lot of these people.

And they recruited people who they thought would be estimable figures. So they do have strong beliefs. But I am not sure they are going to be totally 100 percent or nothing.

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

MARK SHIELDS: When you have got people who are on record as saying they will not vote to raise the debt ceiling, I mean, that’s not negotiable, Jim. That means…

DAVID BROOKS: Right.

JIM LEHRER: Explain why that must be done.

MARK SHIELDS: OK.

The debt ceiling limit is not about spending now. It’s about obligations this country has and has had for a generation.

JIM LEHRER: Already made, yes.

MARK SHIELDS: And already made.

And you don’t stop and say, let’s reexamine it. That means every E-3 who is on the line in Afghanistan and his or her family is cut off. That means every military hospital. I mean, it’s not selective. It’s Border Patrol. It’s all the things they care about beyond Social Security and Medicare. And that’s the reality.

DAVID BROOKS: But it’s defaulting on the debt. As Secretary Geithner said, it is catastrophic.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes. He’s right.

DAVID BROOKS: And so they’re going to have to compromise.

But you look at — they came in and they said we’re going to cut $100 billion right away. And some of the senior Republicans, who really want to cut the size of the government, said you actually can’t cut that much in the middle of a fiscal year, because government has made certain commitments, hired certain people and such. And, so, here is a practical reality. So we have to deal with that.

So they sort of have scaled back. But that tension, scaling back, will inevitably — what will happen?

JIM LEHRER: How can that be — Boehner, for instance, Speaker Boehner has said, well, we’re not going to raise the debt ceiling unless we have spending cuts to go along with it.

How can you tie those in now?

DAVID BROOKS: This is — and I have spoken to some of the freshman who want to have the debt ceiling limit vote every six months, because they think this is leverage for them.

JIM LEHRER: Oh, I see.

DAVID BROOKS: And every time you vote for it, we get more leverage.

I wonder how much leverage it really is, because Eric Cantor told me and he’s told other people, we will not…

JIM LEHRER: He is the number-two leader in the House.

DAVID BROOKS: In the House.

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

DAVID BROOKS: We will not shut down the government.

And so, if you have already said, we will fold in the end, how much leverage do they have? I’m curious about that.

JIM LEHRER: Now, the health care reform thing, there are clearly enough Republican votes in the House to vote full repeal, and they are going to do that in a few days. What does it mean?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, it means several things.

First of all, on the Democratic side, it means they have a second chance to sell — to make a first impression. They obviously weren’t able to convince people on the health care bill. But now, when it means taking away things and benefits that people have…

JIM LEHRER: And that is all they will talk about.

MARK SHIELDS: Right. I mean, the Republicans, all of a sudden, don’t want to vote on individual elements in it. They want to vote for the whole thing. They don’t want to vote whether preexisting condition, or let’s repeal that, or let’s repeal lifetime limit, somebody can be dropped in the middle of an illness. No, we don’t want — no, we want the whole thing.

JIM LEHRER: You keep kids up to the age of 26.

MARK SHIELDS: Keep kids to the age of 26 on the family health plan.

So, you have got — it’s kind of an interesting tension there.

The Republicans do have the votes to repeal. But, again, it’s fear. It’s — David Dreier, the chairman of the Rules Committee, says, all we’re doing is keeping a promise.

And the promise — now, they break a promise that they have just made. They came in: We are going to do this in a different way. We are going to have committee hearings. We are going to have votes of floor amendments open.

And, you know, John Boehner in his first press conference spent half the time on the defense, explaining why the new rules, they weren’t going to do it.

JIM LEHRER: Now, they’re going to do what — it’s called a closed rule, meaning they are just going have the vote.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, that is the smartest way to do it, though, because they are going to state their position. They’re going to lay down a marker.

And it is not even going to get a vote in the Senate, so why waste weeks and weeks? Make your position and then move on to other stuff. And I think that’s the right thing to do. It is not going go anywhere, but they will lay down a marker.

Their problem is, first, they don’t — haven’t quite articulated their alternative. No, we are not going back to the status quo, so what is their alternative? And I think they realize that, though they haven’t settled on an alternative.

But I just would say, this is going nowhere, but there are all sorts of things that really are threatening the health care bill, from court decisions to decisions by employers. Employers around the country are looking at the law and saying, you know, I could dump people off my rolls and save a lot of money — to things like they have these things called high-risk pools that so far are supposed to have about 250,000 people enrolled in them. Instead, they have 8,000.

So, some of the projections are off. And, so, the law is looking a little vulnerable. And I think we will be talking about health care some time over the next five years again in a serious, fundamental way.

JIM LEHRER: They could go at defunding some of these things, could they not?

MARK SHIELDS: Yes, they could. That’s exactly…

JIM LEHRER: Which is — it’s different than repealing the whole thing, but you kill it, at least parts of it.

MARK SHIELDS: Those will be the real fights, and when they try and defund the execution and administration of it, of the law itself.

And just one thing on Speaker Boehner. I didn’t want to suggest that his week was a bad week, because I thought, of all the public figures in the country that I thought showed an understanding of the tone, ear-deafness, of you would, of what was going on in the country, the mood of the country, the two best were Andrew Cuomo taking over as governor of New York and John Boehner. There was nothing self…

JIM LEHRER: A Democrat and a Republican.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes, nothing self-congratulatory, no high-fives, no victory dance in the end zone, no big gala with high rollers there. I thought he showed a very good tone and a personal modesty.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. I would say, since the election, if you look at the two Washington figures who have had excellent periods, I think Boehner and Obama have both had excellent periods.

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

DAVID BROOKS: They have done, both, very well.

JIM LEHRER: These last few weeks, yes.

MARK SHIELDS: Obama went to 50 percent by going on vacation for two weeks.

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

Well, let’s talk about the president, his appointment today of Gene Sperling, for instance, to his top economic guy. What do you think of that?

DAVID BROOKS: I think it is an excellent appointment, first, because Sperling is the kind of guy who just — he’s a fountain of policy programs. And there is nobody else like him that I know.

JIM LEHRER: He is a talking…

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. Well, he does talk a lot.

But if you wake him up and say, I would like to help the middle class, he will say, well, I have got nine programs here that I think will help you. And so that is useful, if you’re a president, to have somebody who says, I have these programs. And so I think he will be very useful.

The rap on him from the left has that been that he is a Bob Rubin centrist who cares mostly about deficits. I think that is unfair. I think he was sort of — he is somewhat of a moderate Democrat, but I think, like a lot of people, over the last couple years, as middle-class wages have stagnated, he’s moved more in a direction of, we have got to really do things to help middle-class wages, a more activist posture.

So, I think some of the rap that it’s sort of the takeover of the right-wing Democrats, not quite fair.

JIM LEHRER: Not quite fair?

MARK SHIELDS: Right-wing — who are these right-wing Democrats?

(LAUGHTER)

JIM LEHRER: Look around.

(LAUGHTER)

MARK SHIELDS: Would the three of them please come out of their Volkswagen, wherever they are?

(LAUGHTER)

DAVID BROOKS: Moderate Democrats.

MARK SHIELDS: OK.

(LAUGHTER)

MARK SHIELDS: Gene Sperling is a policy maven. I mean, he is somebody who would rather make public policy than make money.

In that sense, he’s the quintessential Democratic government servant. He really — I mean, being in government and making policy is so much more exciting and fulfilling for him than walking on Wall Street with a…

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

MARK SHIELDS: And he speaks in short, declarative sentences, too. He will be good as a spokesperson for this administration, which has lacked that.

And he will bring a non-abrasive, non-controversial, non-ego-driven presence to that office, which I think will be a relief to many people who have been there.

(LAUGHTER)

JIM LEHRER: What about Bill Daley, White House chief of staff?

MARK SHIELDS: Something has happened in the Democratic Party, not the right-wing Democrats. In this case, it is the left-wing Democrats who, it isn’t enough that somebody has spent his entire life since 1968 working for every Democratic ticket, working in Democratic administrations, chairing Gore’s presidential campaign, being committed to the party at every level, and somehow…

JIM LEHRER: Serving in Democratic…

MARK SHIELDS: … administrations…

JIM LEHRER: … Cabinets, yes.

MARK SHIELDS: … as secretary of commerce.

You know, somehow, you have to have had an income stream that meets the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval. He has had an honorable and legal public life and personal life, as far as I know. He’s a grownup. He’s not — it’s a good sign in the sense that he’s not an Obama cultist.

I mean, he’s not somebody who comes out of the Obama camp. He supported Dan Hynes, Obama’s opponent for the United States Senate in 2004 in Illinois, and tells a wonderful story about he and his brother Richie endorsed Dan Hynes. They got a personal note from Barack Obama saying: I understand this completely. He’s a friend of yours. I admire loyalty. When it is over, the primary is over, I would like to talk to you, because I really seek your support and your counsel.

And, I mean, in that sense, it’s not Jim Baker, but it’s a step in the Jim Baker direction. Ronald Reagan did something that no president has ever done in my lifetime. He hired the man who had run the last two campaigns against him…

JIM LEHRER: Against him, yes, yes.

MARK SHIELDS: … and somebody who had…

JIM LEHRER: Jim Baker, yes.

MARK SHIELDS: … knowledge of politics and the press and Congress and the town.

And I think Bill Daley, while not Jim Baker, is a step in the right direction.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree?

DAVID BROOKS: That was a great five minutes. Mark has just endorsed people who worked at Goldman Sachs and J.P. Morgan. So, I’m happy.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVID BROOKS: No, he’s — Bill Daley is…

JIM LEHRER: Yes? Yes, David?

(LAUGHTER)

DAVID BROOKS: I think he’s an excellent choice.

Ideology aside, managing the White House — one of the things that I think needs to happen in the White House is, when the president makes a decision, it has to be followed all the way down the line. And in a White House that has been focused on Capitol Hill, sometimes, that hasn’t always happened, to the frustration of a lot of people who work there.

And I think he is the kind of guy who will simplify lines of authority and make it a well-functioning — not that it isn’t a well-functioning White House, but work on that problem, which has sort of drifted recently.

JIM LEHRER: OK.

MARK SHIELDS: And he is not a drama — he is not a drama king or queen either at all, which is refreshing.

JIM LEHRER: OK. OK. Great. Thank you both.