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Shields and Brooks on Obama’s Egypt Stance, Debt-Limit Fight

February 4, 2011 at 6:15 PM EDT
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Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks discuss the week's political developments, including the most recent unemployment report, the U.S. response to unrest in Egypt and the brewing fight in Washington over government debt.

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

Mark, do you agree that the United States has a lot of power on this Egypt situation and is using it well?

MARK SHIELDS: I think the United States has more interest than it has control over the situation. In the final analysis, it’ll be the decision of the — of the Egyptian people. We can try and shape and influence that, but we can’t control it.

JIM LEHRER: So, what they have done thus do you think has been smart?

MARK SHIELDS: I think that — yes, I think they got caught at the outset. They were a little slow to respond. And there — there is — when are you in bed with somebody for 30 years, whether it’s Trujillo or Pinochet or Somoza or anybody else, you start to look at his virtues and ignore many of his defects domestically.

And the — there was that unwillingness, as mentioned in the discussion with Judy, to — to upset the Saudis, as well as the United Arab Emirates, that we were going to just toss aside somebody who had been an ally and a supporter and a major help to the United States in Mubarak at the first hint of trouble.

But I think then — I think they then got their footing and realized that this was a popular uprising, genuine, authentic, widespread, and that we could not be on the wrong side of history.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree, David, that, at least now, the United States is using its power well?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. Now they are. It took them a long time to get there.

I mean, the administration comes in. President Obama is really more of a follower of George H.W. Bush, more of a realist, preserving stability. And we saw that philosophy reflected in what Hillary Clinton said a week-and-a-half ago, when she said it was a stable regime, when Joe Biden refused…


DAVID BROOKS: … to say to you that Mubarak was a dictator.

But they’ve caught up. And last Friday, they made some progress. And then I really think, over the last weekend, Saturday and Sunday, they really made the switch. And they said, he’s got to go. That’s clearly the situation.

And I’m really impressed by how quickly they have moved off their original position. And I think the influence may be substantial. We don’t know this. I know — I ran into many people who were extremely nervous about today, that thought today was Tiananmen day, that they would crack down.

JIM LEHRER: Yes, chaos day.

DAVID BROOKS: And it could be that our conversations from the Pentagon to the Egyptian military played a big role in preventing that. We don’t know that yet.

But I think our influence in that kind of way, in those sorts of conversations, potentially substantial.

JIM LEHRER: Is there a risk involved, beyond the immediate, that the end result may be Mubarak going, but who knows what’s going to happen after he leaves…


JIM LEHRER: … and the U.S. is taking that risk, but so be it; it’s worth it?

DAVID BROOKS: First of all, it is our ideals. We believe in democracy. And these people are calling for it in the most responsible possible way.

Second, there are things we can do. The first and most pressing need is to create political parties there. And the U.S. and other Western and other powers can help do that. The Egyptian society is not like Iraq after Saddam. It’s a much more stable society. It has problems. And the Human Development Report lists it — I think it’s about 100th out of 180 nations.

It’s not a healthy society, but it’s not a basket case. And there are professional societies, organizations that are trying to come into being that have been crushed by the government. There are unions that are sort of in proto form.

So, there are lots of aspects of civil society that can be built on. And so, in part, it’s up to us in the outside world to help those structures, those institutions form between now and whenever the election is.

And we could still — you know, the crucial thing — we have learned this from the 100 — or 85 autocracies that have fallen — the crucial moment is not when they fall. It’s what happened in the subsequent months to create structures, to create a real country.

JIM LEHRER: And the military, in Egypt’s case, with the U.S. help, is a strong force in maintaining the post time, as well as maintaining order now, correct?

MARK SHIELDS: Absolutely.

I found it rather interesting — and I guess encouraging, politically — in this country that John McCain and John Kerry, two former presidential nominees, have sponsored a joint resolution, which the Senate approved last night, calling for the orderly transfer to a caretaker government but challenging and really calling upon the Egyptian military to demonstrate the professionalism that it’s capable of and been trained for.

And it has been an incredibly intimate and close relationship with the United States military over the years. I mean, there has been training back and forth. They know each other at the lower-grade officer level and at the — all the way up to the command level. So, in that sense, they are positive.

Just one little point of personal privilege on Joe Biden, who did take a hit for not being able to say dictator, but in United States politics, I mean, it’s always been, if someone is on our side, he is a strongman.


MARK SHIELDS: If he is on the other side, he is a dictator. I mean, that has sort of been the nomenclature throughout.

All of these guys who were such stalwart anti-communists, I mean, the Marcoses of the world, they were — they became dictators when they fell.

DAVID BROOKS: Hey, strongman is a bad word, too. But this was — the policy, I mean…

MARK SHIELDS: No, I’m not arguing with policy. I’m just…

DAVID BROOKS: I mean, I’m not blaming Biden. They told him what to say.


DAVID BROOKS: But, you know, we had a policy. I think, when President Obama wanted to reach out to other countries, the natural thing was to reach out to other governments and maybe not pay as much attention to other peoples.

And I hope one of the lessons the Obama administration draws from this is that you really do have to pay attention not only to the conversation you are having with the government but to how that government is treating its own people. And that has to be part — a big, big part of your factor when you are thinking about governments.

JIM LEHRER: Let’s go to the other big story of the day, Mark, is the — of course, the job figures today. We heard what David Leonhardt just explained, that you could — it depends on how you look at it. It may be good, but it may still be bad no matter what.

How do you see it?

MARK SHIELDS: David Leonhardt understands this a lot better. He has studied it a lot longer.

I just simply say this — 36,000 jobs is less than unacceptable. I mean, statistics, I don’t care if you’re talking about 9.4 or 9.0…


MARK SHIELDS: … the stock market hitting 12,000 and confidence being up. Statistics don’t bleed. Percentages don’t have children and get discouraged.

And that is what — I mean, we have an economy right now that is not producing jobs for people who have worked, with a long work record — we’re not talking about people who have been out of the work force forever — who haven’t worked, who want to work. And it’s really a serious and grievous national problem.

And it just comes back, Jim, to — you and I have talked about it in the past — does any of these people on Capitol Hill know anybody who is serving in Iraq or Afghanistan or who’s been a grunt on the ground? Does anybody know anybody who has been laid off, I mean, who wants to work, has worked all of his or her life?

And, boy, the lack of urgency about this really does — I think is unsettling.

DAVID BROOKS: I think there is urgency. I mean, I think everyone knows someone who has been laid off. God knows if you are in journalism, you do.

But the question is, what do you do short term? And it’s just very hard. We had huge stimulus bills. We have had — we had another big stimulus bill and passed as tax reform over the interim between the election.

So, there — we have spent a lot of money. But it turns out to be very hard to create real jobs short-term, when people in the business community are very scared, when you have the aftershock of a financial crisis, which historically leads to long periods of unemployment.

I am a little more bullish about what is going to happen, just based on conversations with people in the business community. People in the business community have been spending the last years trying to consolidate, trying to increase productivity without really expanding.

And yet you have conversations with people in that community now, and you begin to hear them talking about expanding and about hiring and seeing new markets. You — David Leonhardt has put it, we are at a transition moment. And the economy does feel like it’s getting stronger.

But, if you look at the record of these situations, it’s just going to take a long time before we really create a lot of jobs.

MARK SHIELDS: We’ve lost eight million jobs in this country in the last three years.

DAVID BROOKS: But look at…

MARK SHIELDS: I know, but, I mean — but 36,000 — I mean, we need 125,000 a month to stay even, just to…

DAVID BROOKS: The classic textbook is Carmen Reinhart and Ken Rogoff, who has been on this program. And they looked at, I think, 800 years of financial crises, and they looked at the unemployment shocks after that for likes six years out, seven years out, eight years out. It lasts a long time.

JIM LEHRER: Speaking of shocks, is the — is there going to be a shutdown of the federal government when it comes in a few days or a few weeks, when Congress finally comes to grips with spending and the deficit and raising the tap on — the cap on the debt?

MARK SHIELDS: Let me give you the classic answer: TWT. Time will tell, Jim.



MARK SHIELDS: No. The reality…

JIM LEHRER: It could go either way, you mean?


MARK SHIELDS: The reality is, we have got a couple of really chicken moments, where each side is coming directly straight on to the other.

March 4 is when the continuing resolution that funds the government expires. That’s going to be the first real test. And there is a — there’s a real split within the majority party, the Republicans, in the House on this issue. I mean, there’s about 170 Republicans who really want to go hard and heavy on cuts.

And Mitch McConnell, the Republican Senate leader, gave the Democrats an opening when he said he would not state unequivocally that he would support a rise in the debt ceiling and vote for it. And so that’s given each side a chance to kind of roll out its rhetorical artillery. And that’s what we are doing right now.

But it is a very real question about how deep these cuts are going to be, because it is only in 16 percent of the budget, which is the discretionary spending.

DAVID BROOKS: That is the crucial issue.

JIM LEHRER: Republicans going to — going to shut down?

DAVID BROOKS: No, no, no.


DAVID BROOKS: Eric Cantor has told me, he’s told a million people, we are not shutting down the government.

And they are going to walk into the debt-ceiling fight knowing they are going to compromise. They will compromise. My problem is, which Mark just referenced, what are we going to cut? Because neither party has the guts to cut Medicare and Social Security and defense — well, maybe defense, but not the big entitlements.

We’re going to cut all the little things that, one, don’t make any difference to the deficit, and do actually — programs that actually work. So, early childhood education will probably get a whack. Funding for the sainted Corporation for Public Broadcasting will probably get a whack.

And all these things, National Science Foundation…

MARK SHIELDS: National Institute of Health.

DAVID BROOKS: National Institutes for Health. These are great programs that probably have bipartisan support, most of them. They are going to get a whack, because we don’t have the guts to tackle the things that actually would make a difference to the deficit.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree with that?

MARK SHIELDS: I do. I do. I think Democrats are willing to take on defense. But there is no question that they are circling, and it’s Alphonse and Gaston: You go first on the entitlements.

And that’s really it.

But I do feel a sense that there is kind of a revitalization of the Simpson-Bowles, I mean, that all of a sudden, people are saying, well, maybe that wasn’t the answer, but damn it, they did at least confront and engage it.

DAVID BROOKS: And there’s a movement on Capitol Hill led by Mark Warner of — and Saxby Chambliss, Democrat and Republican, to get some senators and say, let’s get serious about this. We are going to have some tax increases. We’re going to have some entitlement cuts.

And, of course, both are getting some pressure from their own party. But there is some building momentum. And I hope all the people who want to save great programs, like early childhood education and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, don’t just plead, oh, don’t cut me, don’t cut me, actually say, cut that. We’re going to get together, and we’re going to say, you cut entitlements and save that, because, if you don’t tackle the entitlements issue, all these good programs are going to get the shaft.


On that wonderful word, we’re going to leave it.


JIM LEHRER: Thank you both very much.