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Shields and Brooks on GOP Candidates’ Plausibility, Egypt’s Bottom-up Revolution

February 11, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks analyze the week's news, including the resignation of Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak and the candidates eyeing the 2012 Republican presidential nomination at the Conservative Political Action Conference meeting in Washington.
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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, let’s just get right to it.

Who is in fact going to be the Republican nominee for president in 2012?

(LAUGHTER)

DAVID BROOKS: Donald Trump.

JIM LEHRER: Donald Trump?

DAVID BROOKS: We can stop our coverage right now.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVID BROOKS: We have hit the reductio ad absurdum moment. I thought the gerbil wheel was the…

JIM LEHRER: The gerbil wheel was the highlight of the…

(LAUGHTER)

JIM LEHRER: What do you make about this? What’s going on here?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. I mean, well, a couple of things are notable for the Republican field. As Judy mentioned, it’s completely wide-open. There is no structure to the race. There is not even a front-runner, the way there has been with McCain or Bush or somebody like that.

And, second, it’s all very late in forming, I think, because of the congressional election. I personally think there are really very few plausible candidates. There are a lot of candidates, but Donald Trump is not going to get the nomination. And Michele Bachmann is not going to run.

Some people — somebody may — people may not have focused on was — was quickly seen there, John Thune, governor — or senator from South Dakota. He’s ascending to a senior position in the Senate, so he may want to stay. But he is a smart guy, an extremely good-looking guy. John McCain always says, if I had his face, I would be president right now.

And he is a normal guy. And so, somebody like that, Mitch Daniels, the governor of Indiana, and Mitt Romney. And, for my money, those are pretty much — maybe Tim Pawlenty — but there are not a lot of plausible candidates — maybe four, maybe five.

JIM LEHRER: Four or five plausible candidates, Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, Jim, I don’t know. I will defer to David when it comes to judging…

JIM LEHRER: Plausibility? Oh.

MARK SHIELDS: … judging the plausibility of Republican candidates.

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

MARK SHIELDS: The reality of the CPAC meeting is that there’s 11,000 people there at the hotel registered for this conference. They’re a constituency in search of a candidate.

There is — I mean, usually, it is a candidate looking for a constituency. They want to beat Barack Obama, but they don’t have anybody. What impressed me the most of all there was what they did not discuss. As the world was dominated and riveted on what was going on in Egypt, they didn’t even address it in their speeches.

JIM LEHRER: Well, why do you think that is?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I think it is a lack of self-confidence, surefootedness. They didn’t know what they wanted to say. They weren’t sure.

The only one who was really critical that I saw was Rick Santorum, the former senator from Pennsylvania, who basically took the line that has been developed by both Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck. And that was that the — Barack Obama, by not supporting Hosni Mubarak in his hour of need, was turning his back on a great ally.

And that — that became the position. But there was nobody there really celebrating the moment of freedom and taking that, picking up that banner. And that — that — I think that does belie a lack of confidence, surefootedness, on a terribly important issue.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree — David, do you agree with Mark that what — what these folks, these 11,000 people want is a candidate — maybe not the whole Republican Party, but these 11,000, they want somebody who can beat Barack Obama; it isn’t about they have a certain set of issues that they want a candidate…

DAVID BROOKS: Not for these 11,000. These are true believers.

JIM LEHRER: OK.

DAVID BROOKS: These are — this is not your Republican committee person who owns a car dealership somewhere out in the country.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes.

DAVID BROOKS: These are true believers. And they will — they are going to have a straw poll. And, traditionally, somebody like Ron Paul will win this thing.

And so they want the hard-core stuff. And so — and they want — they want to establish principle. And the other aspect of this group, increasingly true of the party activists as a whole, is they are quite libertarian, not that interested in social conservative issues. And so they will tend to gravitate towards somebody like Paul.

Just on the — on the Egypt thing…

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

DAVID BROOKS: … there — there was an interesting split among the Glenn Beck types, really with delusional ravings about the caliphate coming back, and I would say the conservative establishment, which saw this as a fulfillment of Ronald Reagan’s democracy dream.

And there was that interesting split. And there were really some fights, including between Bill Kristol and Glenn Beck this week…

MARK SHIELDS: That’s right. Yes.

JIM LEHRER: Kristol taking the position that…

DAVID BROOKS: … saying, this is wonderful. What are you raving about? It is not the taking over of the Muslim fundamentalists.

And Glenn Beck, and you — for the first real time, you began to see a lot of really serious conservatives taking on Beck and people like that, and saying, you know, your theories are just wacky.

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

What’s the — is there any way to measure at this point just how powerful these folks, these 11,000 people, and the views that they represent, how powerful they are going to be in eventually deciding who is going to be the nominee?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, they are a multiplier.

I would say that, given the lack of form in this race, what you don’t want is to alienate this important constituency. These people are going to be players, participants. I don’t necessarily agree — David’s right — Ron Paul did win it before.

But it has been — I mean, Ronald Reagan was their favorite. I mean, this is a — it’s a conservative group. It isn’t “Looney Tunes.” There are some people there that you would think belong in the Flat Earth Society — but you find that in liberal groups as well — who are just kind of ideologically driven.

But these are force multipliers. I mean, there’s a lot of people there from New Hampshire, a lot of people there from Iowa. So, you know they’re going to be there in the first — in the first two determining contests, where their numbers really matter.

The lack of structure in this race, Jim, is really fascinating. Republicans always have a front-runner. I mean, in 1980, it was Ronald Reagan. It was his turn. In ’88, it was George Herbert Walker Bush’s turn. In ’96, it was Bob Dole’s turn. George W. Bush leaped to the fore. But then, in 2008, they returned. It was John McCain’s turn.

I mean, the Democrats are all over the lot. They just — they meet somebody, and they nominate him. Barack Obama, come on up here. I mean, George McGovern, who are you?

But the Republicans — and there is no front-runner. And that really does leave a sense of uncertainty about the party.

JIM LEHRER: How do you feel about the power of these folks?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, I think they have some power, but they were not for John McCain, not by a long stretch. And they were ambivalent about George W. Bush at some — by the second time.

But the party has changed. And the party has moved a little in their direction. And, so, the libertarian, the we have got to repeal health care, that really has become a magnifying power in the party. And they do speak to that. So, they are sort of on the cut — the vanguard of the economic edge.

They have to decide, do we want somebody who we love, or do we want somebody who can win? And, right now, they want somebody that can win.

JIM LEHRER: What about in the House this week, where there was a little bit of that split over a couple of issues, where some Tea Party people said, no, no, we want bigger cuts than the leadership wanted and whatever?

DAVID BROOKS: Right.

JIM LEHRER: Is that representative of what’s going to happen in other areas as well, do you think?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. I mean, the leadership and people like Paul Ryan are plenty conservative, and they want to scale back government, but they say cutting in the middle of a year just is problematic.

And a lot of the freshman said, we are going to cut $85 billion, or we’re going to cut $100 billion, or whatever it is going to be. We’re going to do some more serious cuts.

My big concern is that they are really unwilling to take on the stuff that seriously is contributing to the debt, which is Medicare, Social Security — especially Medicare. And they are cutting all the stuff actually that people kind of like and that they — and they’re — so they are going to end up cutting kind of effective programs that will have no long-term fiscal benefit.

And this is really the challenge the Republicans face. Are they going to cut all the stuff that is popular, and not solve the debt, which they talk about? And, right now, they are heading down that direction.

JIM LEHRER: Do you see a serious division here?

MARK SHIELDS: I do. Just — I’m glad David made the point. I mean, Social Security is self-financing. I mean, it is not — I mean, it — there is a — there is a funding problem with the baby boomers, no question about it.

But that — when we talk about entitlements, I mean, the reality is that it is solvent. And, in fact, it’s bankrolled the federal government, if you look at the borrowing from Social Security.

I think, Jim, what we see in — there is a real problem for the Republicans in the House leadership, because any new leadership, when they take over, there is a question of, they’re developing confidence in themselves, in each other, as a cohesive group.

And it just contrasts to when Nancy Pelosi took over the House, and with a Republican president, in 2006. In the first 100 hours or so, they passed — they passed the — a student loan bill. They passed an increase in the minimum wage. They passed veteran benefits.

I mean, and Republicans are kind of feeling their way along. And they are stumbling a little bit. I mean, John — there is a question of confidence with John Boehner, how much he can have in his leadership, when — when they can’t count and they lose two floor votes this week.

And the freshman that David talked about, some 87 strong, are — they have to be socialized. They have to be made part of a cohesive unit. And they’re not — they’re not there yet. And they do want to cut. They want to cut bigger.

DAVID BROOKS: Though, just quickly, I think a mitigating factor is to the good. Pelosi really centralized power in the speaker’s office. Boehner has vowed not to do that.

So, to some degree, having fights, having — having some losses is a good thing for the institution and for the House.

JIM LEHRER: All right, let’s go, finally, back to Egypt.

David, what word would you use, historic, cosmic, or whatever about…

DAVID BROOKS: Cosmic — cosmically historic, meta-cosmic?

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

DAVID BROOKS: You know, I mean, Hisham Melhem said it — said earlier it’s — there just are very few countries that are really at the beating heart of the Middle East. And Iraq and Egypt are two of them. And they are both stumbling in some form toward democracy. And that is bound to have huge ripples.

And the second is, if you just take a long historical sweep of this, you go back to about 1974, when the Portuguese dictatorship fell, you go around the world, 85 autocracies have fallen. Historians will look back on these…

JIM LEHRER: Eighty-five?

DAVID BROOKS: Eighty-five. One hundred countries have seen threats at least to autocracies, and 85 have fallen. And they haven’t all made it to democracy. Some of them are sort of in a gray zone in the middle.

But, when historians look back on our era, they will be struck by how this contagion, this went — you know, leapt up around the world in places unexpected. And people have a sense in their head that: I want to be — to have dignity, I have got to be in a certain kind of country, democratic and open. And if I don’t live in that country, I feel humiliated.

And that is sort of a mental change that has just swept the world.

JIM LEHRER: Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: Joyful, ecstatic. It’s a — it’s bottom-up. This wasn’t orchestrated from the top, no artillery, no carpet bombing, no IEDs, unlike Iraq, no — no body counts, just a remarkable, remarkable, historic achievement.

And I think that it puts a brand-new face for those outside of the Middle East on Islam. I mean, this is — al-Qaida hates what happened, is happening right now in Egypt. I mean, this is an — this is an achievement of such signal proportion, you can’t — look, this is a, what, 90 percent Islamic nation.

And you look at Muslim faith, and you look at that right now, and you say, wait a minute, how different can they be? They crave democracy. They — self-determination.

JIM LEHRER: It was a secular — it was a secular…

MARK SHIELDS: Secular, better for their future. I mean, just a remarkable, remarkable moment, and encouraging.

JIM LEHRER: How much responsibility — or should say credit — if any, is due the government of the United States of America?

DAVID BROOKS: Minimal.

JIM LEHRER: Minimal?

DAVID BROOKS: I think minimal.

And I think the president, there were moments during the past couple weeks where he really seemed to be on the right side, but there were also moments when he was hedging, and, more importantly, in the past two years, or really in the past six years — or five years — both administrations, a withdrawal of support from the democratic forces, a withdrawal of support from the civil society.

And I think we just have to have a lot more confidence in all these countries in those forces and in being on the right side of history. And I mentioned the 85 that fell. Really, only 30 or 40 transitioned to democracy. And it depends on, what are the strength of institutions?

So now what — it is more important what the U.S. does now than what it did in the last few years. And do we help political parties form, all kinds of political parties? Do we help civil society form? Are we giving the sort of electoral advice internationally that can be given? That’s really the crucial thing, not what just happened.

JIM LEHRER: How do you feel about the U.S. role?

MARK SHIELDS: I think we saw the limits of United States influence.

And I don’t argue with David there. I do think the president was under enormous pressure from strong friends of Israel, from strong friends of — from other allies in that region, not to go fast. I think that that was a factor that wasn’t publicized but was very real.

And I sensed today, in his moments, in his…

JIM LEHRER: The fear being that there would be chaos and…

MARK SHIELDS: That the chaos, and the important role that Egypt has played with Israel, on its border, as recognizing Jimmy Carter, the Camp David agreements.

But, in addition to that, Jim, I think that — that there was a sense of exhilaration today in the president, I mean, almost liberation. I mean, after all the nuances and the sort of calibrated, calculated statements of the past week, I mean, it was really a celebration on his part and a statement to the people of Egypt.

DAVID BROOKS: I just hope he persuaded himself and that he embraces that policy from here on out.

JIM LEHRER: All right.

David, Mark, thank you both.