TOPICS > Politics

Shields, Brooks on U.S. Facing Tough Calls on Libya, Pension Woes

March 4, 2011 at 7:34 PM EDT
Columnists Mark Shields and David Brooks sort through the top political stories of the week. including the "civil war in the making" in Libya, the brewing pension problems across the United States and what's being done to avoid a government shutdown.


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

Would it be correct to say, Mark, like it or not, wherever you come down, that story that Paul just told is the story now? In all of Wisconsin, Ohio, you name it, that’s it?

MARK SHIELDS: It is. It’s a story that has the dateline just everywhere in the United States.

JIM LEHRER: And do you agree with what the mayor of that small town said; it’s nobody’s fault; it’s everybody’s fault; it’s a lot of causes here?

MARK SHIELDS: Yes, Geoff Garin, the Democratic pollster, has a great statement. And I think it’s quite accurate. He said, Americans are not willing to pay for the government they want. They want more government than they’re willing to pay for. And I think that’s been the case. I don’t think there is any question about it.

JIM LEHRER: Do agree with that? That’s what…


I mean, we had a surge, not only of private debt, but also public debt. And it is a question of living within your means. And, somehow — it is an odd phenomenon, because every generation has an incentive to spend on themselves and put off cost to the future.

And yet, in American history, nobody has quite done it the way we have. And so you wonder, why is that? And you go back. I was reading FDR’s comments even during the New Deal, when they were spending a lot of money and they had to.

But there was sort of a moral horror of debt, because they had lived sort of risky lives, and they were sort of risk-averse, maybe more than us, and I think because they felt a bridge generation to generation. And they didn’t even have to think of it. They had an instinctual disgust of pushing that off.

And somehow that got eroded. And so we had this surge in private debt, but we also had a surge in promises, where politicians said: I can’t afford to pay you now, but I’m going to give you all these benefits you will enjoy some day without the money actually being there to pay for them.

JIM LEHRER: And then came a recession.

MARK SHIELDS: That’s right.

One American political leader, to his credit, raised this and made a campaign on it. And it was Ross Perot. I mean, he had a lot defects and shortcomings as a candidate, but he confronted it in 1992, after we had quadrupled the national debt.

We had gone 200 years in the country, through the Louisiana Purchase, two great wars, Great Depression, run up a total of indebtedness of $1 trillion by 1980, 200 years. We quadrupled it in 12 years, with no wars and no depression, by tax cuts and spending and all the rest of it.

And Perot came along and said, what you have done, you ought to be ashamed of yourself. You have given yourselves a party and passed the tab on to your kids. And he put it on the national agenda, to his credit. And we did — we did confront it in — at that point in the late 1990s. Both parties tried to take some credit for it, and probably deserve it.

Bill Clinton was the president. He gets most of the lion’s share. But, I mean, it has — it has become an epidemic in the country.

JIM LEHRER: And now — but, today, there’s some good news on the jobs front, right, David? And is that — do you see it as really good news?


I mean, I’m really impressed by the private sector growth, by the small business growth. You know, you travel around the country, you meet businesspeople. They — they are hungry for opportunity. They have got ideas. They want to try them out. They want to make their companies better.

It is — the natural impulse of an entrepreneur, of somebody in business or a worker is to do better and more. That is just the natural impulse. And so the weird thing is not that we are growing. The weird thing is that they didn’t have the opportunity to grow because of all these conditions that had built up.

But now they’re back to their normal situation. I saw some businesspeople, it was probably two, three months ago, and one of the executives said, squeeze your hand tight and hold it there tight, and then relax it. See how much better that feels? And he said we’re now in the relaxing phase.

And so I think you know that confidence, I think, is growing.

JIM LEHRER: That’s what the two experts told Jeff as well.

JIM LEHRER: He’s now going to try it and see what happens.


MARK SHIELDS: Yes. Yes, it does feel better.

JIM LEHRER: Well, that is what the two experts told Jeff as well.

MARK SHIELDS: No, exactly. But Lisa Lynch…


MARK SHIELDS: It was — it’s the biggest drop — psychologically, it’s nothing but good news.

I mean, we’re talking about the first time in two years that it is under 9 percent. It’s the biggest increase since last May, but that was Census Bureau hires. So, it is good news.

The sobering news that was added that — in Jeff’s piece that 13.7 million people still looking for jobs, and six million of them have been looking for more than six months.

JIM LEHRER: And Lisa Lynch added that, with 200,000 new jobs, that is great, but you…



MARK SHIELDS: 2019 to get back to 5 percent.



DAVID BROOKS: And just one other quick sobering fact. There has been an oddity in the last three weeks in the polling data where they ask people how optimistic you are about the future.

And four weeks ago, people were pretty optimistic. But, in the last month, in both the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll and the Gallup poll, that optimism has plummeted.

MARK SHIELDS: It really has.

DAVID BROOKS: And I’m not quite clear sure why. It might be increase in gas prices. It might be turmoil in the Middle East. It might be the budget fight. I’m not quite sure why, but it has plummeted by quite a significant degree.

MARK SHIELDS: Twenty-nine — only 29 percent in the Wall Street Journal/NBC poll believe the economy is going to get better.


Well, let’s — the other discussion we just heard a few moments ago about Libya, interesting discussion. We have got to do something, says the Libyan-American. And the Air Force general says, great; what? And who is going to give us the power to do it and what is the goal?

What do you — how is this thing going to play out?

MARK SHIELDS: I think it’s going to play out, Jim, absent a visible, factual evidence of a tragedy of great human dimensions there, I think there will be no entry on the part of the United States militarily.

I mean, Secretary Gates again delivered the sobering news for the administration and to the administration critics, which was a no-fly zone is an act of war. You know, you don’t simply say — it’s not like a no-passing zone. We don’t put up orange cones. I mean, you have to go in and take out the anti-aircraft capability of the other country.

So, I think that’s — that course, which was being trumpeted and heard rather loudly, became muted. But — and there’s no way we’re going to act unilaterally. I think the experiences the United States has had in Iraq and Afghanistan in this first decade of the 21st century have given great cause — caution and hesitation to the idea of a surgical strike anywhere.

JIM LEHRER: How do you see it?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, the experience has given us great caution.

On the other hand, you have got the following logistics sort of playing out. We have imposed sanctions on Gadhafi. We have more or less isolated him and his regime. There is really no escape hatch for them. And the protesters are marching.

And so we have put them in a situation where we — they say there is no escape. We’re not going to be forgiven. We have to fight to the end and just stick this out.

So, we have given them a strong incentive to do everything possible to crush the activists. And, so, if we…

JIM LEHRER: You mean to Gadhafi?


JIM LEHRER: An incentive to Gadhafi…


And, so, I understand why the sanctions — I supported the sanctions. But if you are going to give the dictator an incentive to kill a lot of people, well, maybe you shouldn’t stop there.

And so are we really going to stand by? If his only choice is, I’m going to do whatever it takes, are we really going to do nothing, the whole world? That is a tough thing to do.

JIM LEHRER: But that’s the question, isn’t it?

DAVID BROOKS: Right. And so I’m — I understand Mark’s cautions, but I don’t think we can just — to the extent that this has happened, and to what we know about Gadhafi, I don’t think we can stand there while he massacres people. We should expect the violence is going to get worse, because he has no incentive to not do that.

MARK SHIELDS: The invasion and occupation of Libya, which is what we are talking about…


MARK SHIELDS: No, it is.

DAVID BROOKS: … invading and occupying.

MARK SHIELDS: You don’t go in, you don’t go in — you don’t send a platoon in. I mean, this is a war, what we’re talking about. It’s a civil war in the making. And it is real.

We have as little leverage in Libya as we have any place in the world. It’s unlike Egypt, where there was an army, an institution that could provide the option of leadership and the reality of leadership. There’s no other countries that have any influence over them.

I mean, absent a collective act by many, many countries, you know, I just don’t see the United States acting.

JIM LEHRER: What about General Deptula’s idea, or not — it wasn’t an idea; it was an option that he said, well, there’s that one area in Tripoli that is fortified; that’s where Gadhafi and his folks are; take them out?

MARK SHIELDS: I mean, it always sounds great. I mean, it really does.

JIM LEHRER: That’s the surgical…

MARK SHIELDS: That’s the surgical — I mean, let’s just go in and take him out, and then we’re gone.

And we don’t have — I mean, if there is evidence of a massacre, then there will be collective action. You know that. And I am tried — I’m sorry that people are being hurt. It strikes me that the tide is going in the direction of the anti-Gadhafi forces right now, from all the reports I have had and am privy to.

So, I hope that that happens. But I do not see the United States — one more land war in the Middle East?

DAVID BROOKS: But, I mean, nobody is talking about sending troops on land. I mean, the activists don’t even want them arming us. They don’t want them doing a surgical strike. I don’t particularly think that is a particularly good idea.

They’re asking for a little way to shift the balance of power. And we have had no-fly zones in Iraq and elsewhere around the world. It hasn’t meant we have had to take over the country. In Saddam’s reign, after the first Desert Storm, we had a no-fly zone. And, so, I’m not sure it is a good idea, but I’m not sure we can walk up this far and then suddenly stand back and say, OK, sorry.

MARK SHIELDS: After we wiped out Saddam’s military capacity in the Persian Gulf War.

It was — the war was stopped after 96 hours because they had been totally decimated and devastated. There was no resistance. He did…

DAVID BROOKS: Saddam had — was using gunships on Shiites. We don’t need to — on the south, but…

JIM LEHRER: All right, let’s move to an even more fun subject, the Congress, the two-week thing now. And they have avoided a shutdown for now. Now they need to negotiate big time all the way to March the 18th.

What do you think is going to happen?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. I sort of don’t see how they are going to do it, but I think they are going to do it.

And I say that because we saw over the past week some flexibility in both parties, actually, among the Republicans. Almost all, except for Michele Bachmann and a few, voted for the deal. Among the Democrats, a large, significant majority voted for the deal.

So, I think they both understand that, if there is no deal, then they both get walloped. And there is no advantage to either party for a shutdown, because both parties, and the polling shows, would be blamed equally.

And, so, I think both are in a nature to deal. I think John Boehner has emerged as a pretty effective leader, and he’s sort of a deal-maker. He uses the Tea Party to say, oh, I have got these crazy guys. You better deal with me.

And so I think they will get a deal. And, right now, I think it will be on the Republicans’ terms. One of the striking things about the last two weeks is the Democrats had all the momentum in the lame-duck session, and they have sort of frittered that away by sheer passivity. And the Republicans are sort of on the march.

JIM LEHRER: Few seconds.

MARK SHIELDS: I think that the question of the lame-duck session, the president was assertive; he was active; he was energetic; he cut the deal on the taxes; he cut the deal on START; he cut the deal on — he cut the deal on — as well on don’t ask, don’t tell.

And I really think that, right now, the advantage is to the Republicans. The Democrats, the administration cannot take a shutdown of the government. I mean, I agree with David, politically, it goes either way, but the country can’t stand it, and given the precarious nature of the economy.

The good news, we may be heading into the recovery of 2011, the summer of 2011, which didn’t ever materialize in the summer of 2010, as Democrats could tell you last November. And they don’t want to jeopardize that in any way.

JIM LEHRER: All right, thank you both very much.

DAVID BROOKS: Thank you.