TOPICS > Politics

Shields, Brooks on Collective Bargaining’s Future, Shutdown Chances, Libya

February 25, 2011 at 8:51 PM EDT
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Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks discuss the week's political news, including possible 2012 Republican presidential candidates, state budget crises, the threat of a federal government shutdown on March 4 and U.S. response to the Libya uprising.
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JIM LEHRER: Now, I promise you this wasn’t a setup, as we go now to the analysis of Shields and Brooks, syndicated columnist Mark Shields, and that New York Times columnist, David Brooks.

David, what did you think of the governor’s answer?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, he hasn’t decided, clearly. He described it as throwing himself off a cliff. That may not be the most attractive prospect.

But I would say, you know, I think what the country needs and what the Republican Party needs is someone who has demonstrated management capacity. And the governor really has done that, not only cutting dealt, but also improving the services, being very detailed-oriented.

And he really could — it would be a wonderful campaign with him and President Obama, because both of them know the subject matter very well. They have philosophical differences. It would be a superb campaign if they ran against each other.

JIM LEHRER: Do you have an opinion about Gov. Daniels?

MARK SHIELDS: I have known Gov. Daniels for 30 years. And I have liked him for 30 years.

And I don’t — I’m not in the business of urging people to run for president. I try and cover them fairly if they do.

JIM LEHRER: OK. But — so, what do you make of what he said about — I mean, do you think he’s going to run? I mean, you’re a pundit. Come on.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes. No, I think, from private conversations with him, I think it’s a very personal decision, and he’s a long way from heading in that direction.

JIM LEHRER: All right. Let’s move from the personal to the issue, the issue of public employees.

Did you pick up any new insights or see any light in the conversation between Gov. Schweitzer and Gov. Daniels…

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I did, I mean, in the sense — I have heard Gov. Daniels before. And his positions have been well-covered, Gov. Schweitzer not so.

And I thought he made a very positive case for the public employees’ collective bargaining. The reality is this. I mean, my good friends, David included, say that, well, unions are great in the private sector, because you have these powerful, rich, greedy bosses, and so workers have to get — they didn’t say that when there were 35 percent of the work force was unionized. They say it now when they’re 7 percent, and they’re sort of defanged and powerless.

But for — somehow, collective bargaining should not extend to people who are nurses or psychiatric social workers or janitors or teachers who work in public, I happen to believe that all workers are entitled to collective bargaining, to — for a just wage, to healthy working conditions, to a place that preserves their moral integrity in the workplace, to insurance, and pension.

And the only way you get that, we don’t — we don’t have employers who are spontaneously generous. We haven’t had them historically. There have been exceptions. But, I mean, the only reason we have a five-day workweek, the only reason we have an eight-hour workday, the only reason we have a minimum wage law and child labor laws and pension funds is because of labor unions’ clout and skill.

There was a — there was — there were Norman Thomases and Jane Addams and the people who pushed it. And I — so, I happen to believe fervently that unions are flawed institutions with imperfect people running them, not unlike businesses, not unlike public television, not unlike government.

JIM LEHRER: Watch it. Watch it.

(LAUGHTER)

MARK SHIELDS: But I do believe they are absolutely necessary to the well-being of our society.

JIM LEHRER: What are your most basic beliefs about that?

DAVID BROOKS: I mean, unions have a right to organize — and I’m specifically talking about public sector unions — a right to organize, and they have a right to ask.

And if there’s a Gov. Schweitzer who is going to say, no, we can’t afford that, then that’s fine. That’s not a problem, or if it’s in Indiana, where you have a governor who is concentrating on the budget. But the fact is, in most states in this country, in, say, 30 states, and ruinously in 10 or 11, arrangements have been made which are simply unsustainable, where politicians year after year said, well, we can’t really afford your salary increase, but don’t worry, you’re going to get a great pension.

And if you do that decade after decade, then, finally, the bill comes due. And it’s coming due in all these states. And part of the problem is just we had weak political leaders who wouldn’t say no when they had to say no and who threw problems now on us.

But I think part of the problem was structural. I think, when a private sector union negotiates, they know their company can go out of business if they ask too much. That’s not the state with a state monopoly. When the private sector negotiates, a private sector union, the management has an incentive to say no.

Here, the management has much less incentive. Most importantly, the public sector unions have a chance to help select the people they’re negotiating with through their campaign donations.

And, so, they get to ask what they want. I perfectly understand that. But when it’s slightly off-balance, then you get what you have got in 30 or 40 states, fiscally unsustainable situations. So, I think I’m not totally in agreement with what Scott Walker is trying to do, which I think is way too polarizing, but I do think the balance has to shift a little.

JIM LEHRER: To both of you, regardless of what your position is — let’s start with you, David — do you think this is a watershed moment on this issue that has just risen kind of because of the debt, particularly at the state level, that this — that, otherwise, we wouldn’t be talking about this; nobody would be?

DAVID BROOKS: Right. This is a watershed issue in our social contract, in what we expect from government and what government can forward.

And for the next 20 years, government is not going to be able to afford what it has afforded. And we have to change that. And one of my problems, by the way, with Scott Walker is this is going to take decades to unwind. And if you start on day one with a hyper-confrontational posture, then you’re not going to get Democrats helping you on day 47, when you’re going to need their help to take other budget measures.

So, I’d much rather see a much more collaborative process, where the unions did concede a few things. Maybe they could concede a few more, like the automatic withdrawal of the union funds, which the government now does. But don’t force it into an all-or-nothing matter of honor.

MARK SHIELDS: There are nine states where there’s no collective bargaining at all, none. They have a higher indebtedness than the states who have collective bargaining, OK?

DAVID BROOKS: Right. That’s right.

MARK SHIELDS: OK? So, it isn’t the collective bargaining, it isn’t the unions who forced us…

JIM LEHRER: It’s not necessarily A and then B?

MARK SHIELDS: No.

JIM LEHRER: OK.

MARK SHIELDS: Scott Walker got elected. He’s an anti-union guy. I mean, Mitch Daniels just told us about his own record of abolishing collective bargaining in Indiana. He got reelected.

I mean, so it’s not simply a one-way route to achievement. And I think what we’re really — it’s — your question, is it a watershed moment?

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

MARK SHIELDS: It is a watershed moment. There’s no question about it.

Organized labor and the G.I. Bill were the bookends of the middle-class prosperity of post-World War II America. America exploded economically. But the only reason that pie was divided was because American veterans returning had a chance to educate themselves like no generation had before and to participate and secure the American dream.

And the only reason wages rose is because one-third of the work force was organized, and they secured those higher wages and the ripple effect across our economy. It is no accident, Jim, since 1979, since unions have been in full retreat in this country, from 1979 to 2009, the median income of the male American worker has dropped by 2 percent.

DAVID BROOKS: No, this is…

MARK SHIELDS: No.

DAVID BROOKS: You have got rubber rooms in New York where they can’t fire terrible teachers because of union rules.

You’ve got schools where you can’t — you get rid of all the really good young teachers because of these rules. You have got California prison workers who are retiring at age 55 with $130,000-a-year pensions.

It’s this — I’m not against unions, but when things get out of whack, when you have got these sorts of rigidities and unsustainable costs, then you have to adjust it. And I’m not saying you have to bust it the way it’s being tried, but it has to be adjusted.

JIM LEHRER: Speaking of busting things, do you think that — there’s a lot of talk now that the Senate Democrats and the House Republicans are going to make a deal for this continuing resolution by Friday. Do you think that’s going to happen and void a shutdown at least?

MARK SHIELDS: I think both sides want to avoid a shutdown. I think that John Boehner understands, both — his temperament is he’s a negotiator. He’s a legislator. He wants to get things done.

He saw what happened to Newt Gingrich in 1995 when it did close down and it became — he became the personalized face of government closing down…

JIM LEHRER: But do you smell a deal here?

MARK SHIELDS: I do, I think — I think at least a two-week deal.

JIM LEHRER: A two-week deal.

MARK SHIELDS: I think that’s…

JIM LEHRER: But then it could come up again.

MARK SHIELDS: He still — I mean, he wants to negotiate. He still has a caucus. The Republicans had a rule that they didn’t bring anything to the floor that didn’t get a majority of the majority. That was the rule all the way through the Denny Hastert years, when he was speaker of the House. And that is that you have to get a majority of your own side.

That’s where John Boehner is going to face a problem, is being sure that he can secure that. I don’t think — I don’t think there’s anybody on his side right now in a leadership position who says, let’s close down the government, and we will pin it on Barack Obama.

And the president has made every effort, I think, since the election to reach out, to offer sort of the olive branch to the other side.

JIM LEHRER: What do you think is going to happen? Or what do you see? Yes.

DAVID BROOKS: I more or less agree with Mark.

JIM LEHRER: Yes. Yes.

DAVID BROOKS: I spoke to Eric Cantor, the number-two Republican, just before the program, and he said, not only do they think they will get this two-week deal, but they feel good — there are good vibrations in the Senate that the Senate is — which is a Democratic-controlled body — is moving also in the direction of some deficit reduction.

And, so at least for this, the next few weeks…

JIM LEHRER: There would be a $4 billion — right?

DAVID BROOKS: Right. Right.

JIM LEHRER: They would agree to a $4 billion cut in — for two weeks, right?

DAVID BROOKS: Right.

And a lot of the cuts that are being proposed in this initial thing are things some of the Democrats want anyway. And so it’s an easier deal. Now, then, the bigger problem is the next deal after you get over this period.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes.

DAVID BROOKS: And, there, they’re obviously less certain, and I would say probably a little less certain about where their own members are.

But I strongly get the sense that the leadership and even some of the freshmen, as long as they’re moving in the right direction, they will consider it a job well done.

JIM LEHRER: New subject: Libya. The president has caught some heat because he’s been accused of reacting slowly to what’s been going on in Libya and Gadhafi, et cetera.

DAVID BROOKS: Right.

JIM LEHRER: Does he deserve criticism?

DAVID BROOKS: I think they have been slow on this one, too, and especially with the atrocities. I don’t think there’s any profit in being nuanced about this.

And people are beginning to talk about sanctions now.

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

DAVID BROOKS: We’re embracing that, but even — some people are also talking about no-fly zones. I don’t think anybody particularly wants to send troops there, but no-fly zones, maybe recognizing the opposition, something more aggressive.

When you have got an atrocity of this nature, it’s going to ratchet up demands for just a pure, simple position: We’re against the tyranny.

JIM LEHRER: Do you think the president has done — played this poorly?

MARK SHIELDS: I think the president has been hobbled, quite honestly.

And I think if history does prove and events do prove that he did act, and we did not stop atrocities we could have stooped, then I think it will be on his hands. But I think he was held hostage by the fact that the Americans couldn’t get out of there and they did not get out of there until today.

JIM LEHRER: Yes. There was the American Embassy. A lot of American employees of the United States government were still there.

MARK SHIELDS: A lot of Americans, yes.

And I think that was it. There was a question whether they be would held hostage and worse things would happen to them. But that is the judgment. I mean, it’s — Rwanda is very much on people’s minds.

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

Another decision he made that has drawn a lot of attention, of course, was the Defense of Marriage — the new position of the Obama administration on Defense of Marriage — on the Defense of Marriage Act. What do you think of that?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, his position is evolving. I mean, it’s an interesting — it’s interesting to hear a president of the United States have an evolving position, especially on an issue that’s been so central to the debate of his own candidacy.

It appears that he’s moving in that direction. But it’s — what he — as I understand it, as a non-lawyer, is that they will enforce the law but not defend the law.

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

MARK SHIELDS: And it’s of course suggested that, if the next Republican president takes that attitude toward Obama’s health care, that they will enforce it, but not defend it, that might not be a position that a lot of Democrats would endorse.

JIM LEHRER: What do you think?

DAVID BROOKS: Right. I have heard exactly the same thing.

And on the substance, I certainly agree with his position. I think he’s moving toward the right position. But I do worry about a president not defending a law that’s on the books. We — presidents come in every four or eight years, and they inherit laws. And it’s a nation of laws and not people.

And so I sort of think the prejudice should always be, defend the law, and then try to change it. And so I’m a little uncomfortable with that, but, on the substance, I think, again, maybe moving a little too slowly, and too slowly for the country, which I think this is becoming a nonissue.

JIM LEHRER: OK. David, Mark, thank you.

MARK SHIELDS: Thank you.