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Shields and Brooks on Obama’s Libya Stance, Wisconsin Union Fight

March 11, 2011 at 5:38 PM EDT
Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks discuss the week's top political news, including President Obama's response to the conflict in Libya and the stalemate over the federal budget, plus Wisconsin's controversial collective-bargaining bill being signed into law and the life of David Broder.
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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, on Libya, how would you describe the president’s approach, based on what he just said…

DAVID BROOKS: He’s never going to accused of being rash. The president doesn’t do things rashly. He does things deliberately.

But I thought the press conference was significant, because it showed the dynamic of his approach, which is a steady ratcheting up. I think he’s been a little cautious, a little behind. But you saw in the tenor of his remarks a continuing process, yes, we will be continuing, as he put it, tighten the noose.

And I think that metaphor is kind of important, because it really does suggest sort of final solution — well, a less-bad phrase — it does suggest that he really wants to do something serious, at the end of the day. And when you say tighten the noose, what you are really saying is, I — we really are uncomfortable with letting Gadhafi, A., massacre people, or, B., even stay in power.

How quickly they will move, how deliberately they will move, it is unsure. I’m sure he even hasn’t decided. But you showed the dynamic of his ratcheting up of pressure.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree? You saw the dynamic, Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: I guess I wasn’t as perceptive as David.

(LAUGHTER)

MARK SHIELDS: I — the question I always have at a press conference is, what is the action statement of any president? The president says, this is a problem. What are we doing about it?

I agree with David. He did list — the president did list — go through a litany of sanctions and frozen assets and multilateral attempts and efforts. And — but I thought we all — we knew those had already happened and were going on.

I mean, he — the first time — he called the press conference, Jim, to address rising energy prices. And the lead was he may tap the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. I means, that’s not exactly let’s stand up and march. And so, for that reason, I just didn’t — I felt the press conference was defensive in…

JIM LEHRER: On Libya, do you think?

MARK SHIELDS: On — just on answering doubts that had been raised, whether his noninvolvement in the budget fight, where the — Mimi Hall’s question, from USA Today, did reflect that Democrats on the Hill, there is a grumbling and rumbling that the president has been detached.

He put Vice President Biden in charge of the negotiations. The next thing, the vice president was in Lithuania, in Moscow, or, you know, in the Scandinavian countries. So, I think that the whole tenor was one of addressing problems that have been raised and criticisms that have been raised, rather than laying out a course of action.

He did involve himself in the budget fight by saying 55,000 teachers, he wouldn’t stand by that — their being laid off. He was — cuts in Head Start were unacceptable and Pell Grants. But I just didn’t get a sense of: This is the course that I, as the leader, am going to chart for you.

JIM LEHRER: You see that — he — would you make the same criticism, generally?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, I think, in general, I would say in the last — since the Republicans assumed majority status in the House, I think that has been the posture, a rope-a-dope posture from the White House, a too passive posture on a whole range of fronts.

He would say a cautious posture. And, maybe politically, he would say, we’re going to let the Republicans hang themselves by being aggressive on spending. But it has certainly not been a period where the president has led from the front. He has led from the back, if at all. And he’s been sort of dragged along by events.

And, now, the upside of that, as Secretary Gates would say, is, we haven’t gotten involved in anything stupid. And that’s true. But there are a whole range of things — all the attention, say, on Libya has focused on the no-fly zone, but there are other things that could be done that are being talked about by the experts to arm the rebels and do — recognize the rebels, all sorts of intermediate steps.

And none of those have been taken. And everything that has been taken, in many views, since Tunisia, really, has been slow.

JIM LEHRER: Do — and you think that’s a mistake, Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: No, I mean, arming the — I think arming the rebels would be — you know, what rebels are you going to arm? We have got a group that Mr. Sarkozy has recognized that is not a national group, that is a — it’s a provincial group.

There’s tribal wars. There’s family groups. I mean, there’s not an organizing principle here. So, I come back. I mean, I think the president’s caution is wise. And it’s the opposite, obviously, of what, I think, voters had become skeptical about in President Bush, or maybe hostile, and that was an impulsiveness.

Barack Obama is not impulsive. He’s not given to emotional rushing into a situation. But I think what is holding him back — at least I hope is holding him back — from those who are urging greater military involvement or engagement, the experiences we had in both Lebanon and Somalia.

I mean, in 1983, in Lebanon, 240 Americans — 243 — 220 Marines were blown up at a time when we had too few to fight there and too many to die. And they did die. And we left in — the peacekeeping mission.

In 1994, we left Somalia after we had gone in there in the best of circumstances, to save people from starvation, hundreds of thousands of people, naively expecting them to be grateful. They turned on us.

JIM LEHRER: Forget that, yes.

MARK SHIELDS: No. And so we left there again.

So, you know, before we go in anywhere or make any kind of commitment, what — you know, what are we willing to do?

JIM LEHRER: But doesn’t it come down, David, in the final analysis if the president or anybody says, but particularly if the president says, “This guy’s got to go”?

DAVID BROOKS: Right. Well…

JIM LEHRER: “Moammar Gadhafi has got to go.”

Well, if it just keeps going slowly and eventually, there is only one way to get rid of him. And that’s with a rifle, symbolically, in other words, through military action. Is that where it goes?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I don’t know anybody on either side who really wants to have troops on the ground.

JIM LEHRER: Right. No, I mean — not want.

DAVID BROOKS: Right.

But I do think it is a problem that we have used this metaphor, he has to go, used the metaphor, tighten the noose.

JIM LEHRER: Tighten the noose.

DAVID BROOKS: And then, if you are tightening the noose, then the guy should be struggling. And Gadhafi is not struggling. He has the momentum on his side.

And so, if you use that kind of metaphor, if you talk about that he is on the wrong side of history, has to go, well, then, presumably, that leads to some consequences. But the likelihood this week on the ground is this is a Libyan Tiananmen, where he cracks down, crushes the opposition, and survives.

JIM LEHRER: That is essentially what James Clapper said, the national intelligence director and got his head handed to him.

(LAUGHTER)

MARK SHIELDS: Until he was abruptly corrected…

JIM LEHRER: Yes. Well, he said, hey, Gadhafi has got the goods here, and he’s probably going to survive, essentially.

MARK SHIELDS: I — based upon my own conversations, I don’t think that he has got a long-term lease there. I think…

JIM LEHRER: Mr. Clapper, you mean?

MARK SHIELDS: No. Well, Mr. Clapper — I’m not talking about Mr. Clapper’s…

(LAUGHTER)

MARK SHIELDS: No. I will leave that to the administration and personnel office. No, I don’t mean that.

JIM LEHRER: Yes. Yes.

MARK SHIELDS: I mean Gadhafi.

JIM LEHRER: Gadhafi.

MARK SHIELDS: I don’t think Gadhafi is there for long.

I mean, yes, he’s got force on his side right now. He’s got a lot of money. But, I mean, Libya, 95 percent of their revenues come from oil and natural gas. So, I mean, we go in there, what — or get involved — that’s going to be — when it’s resolved, when Gadhafi does go, how do you distribute those? I mean, that is a major, major question.

And are we going to be in the middle of it? I don’t think time is on his side, Gadhafi’s side.

DAVID BROOKS: Could I make one point about Clapper?

JIM LEHRER: You may, sure.

DAVID BROOKS: He made an analytic point.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes.

DAVID BROOKS: And it was interpreted as something he wanted.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes.

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

DAVID BROOKS: And this happens again and again in our debates, that people make an analytic prediction, and then it somehow becomes an endorsement. And this is something we should be careful about.

JIM LEHRER: Well, I agree. And I misstated. I didn’t say it as clearly as I should have, myself. And I apologize to Mr. Clapper, if you will pass that…

(LAUGHTER)

JIM LEHRER: No, no. No, you make a very — a very good point. I mean, he was asked a very direct question.

DAVID BROOKS: Right.

JIM LEHRER: And I went back and looked at it.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes.

JIM LEHRER: And he was giving — as an analyst, he gave an analytical answer. You are right. He wasn’t saying, hey, we want this guy to stay. He just said, he’s going to.

MARK SHIELDS: Michael Kinsley, the journalist, said a gaffe is speaking the truth when you’re not supposed to. And, no, I think he gave a truthful analysis.

JIM LEHRER: All right, back to the spending thing.

The president said it’s irresponsible, the way the government of the United States is operating right now, with these continuing resolutions for every two weeks. He said, that’s no way to run a government, much less a — I mean, a railroad, much less a government. He didn’t — I’m paraphrasing again. I will probably mess this one up, too.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVID BROOKS: We’re not grading.

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. I thought that was his single best moment in the press conference, because there was finally resolve.

And I thought the energy stuff was quite disappointing. It was really — there was no agenda, as Mark said. It was sort of leading nowhere. But, here, he really showed some impatience.

Now, whether that is actually accompanied by action, I’m not so sure. I do get the vibe, talking to some people in Congress, that they’re — the two sides are still pretty far apart on philosophy of government and other things, but there is a realization that they’re probably not going to settle this. And so there is some willingness to sort of punt it, to say, OK, we’re going to have some messy settlement we all hate, and then we will have an election.

And we will — this big debate, we will have an election about in 2012. And that suggests that they will find some messy solution in the interim, and then just tell their people: We couldn’t settle this. Let’s have an election, take it to the country.

JIM LEHRER: What do you think of that?

MARK SHIELDS: I think that we’re going to have several crisis points between here and there.

I mean, first of all, we have got the two- to three-week extension, three-week extension coming up. But what we’re heading toward is April 15, which Secretary Geithner has said when we are going to run out of money. So, we are going to have to take a vote, you know, sooner, rather than later, on raising the debt ceiling.

JIM LEHRER: Yes, these temporary things are all aimed toward April 15.

MARK SHIELDS: Exactly.

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

MARK SHIELDS: And that’s going to be — and don’t forget, I think what John Boehner is trying to do, and the Republicans, is to get through these. And they — I think they’re on the offensive. I think the administration has been on the defensive.

And I think — we saw the quote in the Senate this week. You could say that the Republicans were, if anything, more united than what the Democrats were on the deficit plans. And I think what the — but he is confronting that his 2012 budget is going to be produced for — which begins in September, and Paul Ryan, the chairman of the House Budget Committee, has promised, at that point, they will really attack and engage entitlement.

So, you know, that’s — I think we’re heading for a showdown earlier, rather than later. And I don’t think it will be long before the election of 2012.

JIM LEHRER: Speaking of showdowns, quickly, because we have talked about this a lot the last two or three weeks, the Wisconsin solution, big victory for the governor and the Republicans?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, we will see. It depends how they utilize it.

If they do — if they take advantage of really the newfound power they have to be flexible and be intelligent in the cutting, then I think it will be a victory on policy grounds.

One of the things that’s concerning me in Wisconsin and other states is, we are just going to have to lay off teachers in a lot of states. Are we going to lay off some of the best, youngest teachers simply because they came to the schools late because of those union rules that force that, or are we going to be able to reward some of the most effective teachers?

And that’s the kind of flexibility that, on the upside, is one of the goals of this sort of confrontation.

JIM LEHRER: Quick word on that, Mark, and then your thoughts about David Broder.

MARK SHIELDS: OK.

On Wisconsin, I think that — I think old teachers are also good teachers.

DAVID BROOKS: I didn’t mean to suggest they weren’t.

MARK SHIELDS: I know. I know it. I mean, but I think, if you think about the teachers that touched your lives, oftentimes, they have been teachers who have been teaching for 20 years or more.

But, that aside, I think this is a major victory for the Democrats. I think that…

JIM LEHRER: For the Democrats?

MARK SHIELDS: For the Democrats. I really do. It’s a — obviously a legislative victory for Gov. Walker.

It has energized a constituency that had grown estranged from — from Barack Obama, organized labor. It has given them a new energy. Also, white working-class voters, non-college voters, who were the biggest defectors to the Republicans in 2010, are really upset about this assault.

I mean, the argument seems to be, Jim, you have got 11 million people who don’t have health insurance today that had it — 11 million more don’t have it. And the argument seems to be, why should these workers have it? You don’t have it.

That seems to be the argument of Gov. Walker and the others.

David Broder was the best reporter, not only of his generation, of the entire era. But, more than that, David Broder and self-importance were total strangers.

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

MARK SHIELDS: He was — in this era of celebrity journalists, he was anything but.

And he was the most generous to the new rookie reporter on the beat of anybody, sharing sources, sharing information, sharing lore and tradition and his special insights. He will be missed. He was just a real gentleman and a special person.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, I completely agree.

He cared about government more than politics. And he cared about voters more than opinion-makers and pundits. He really put the focus on government and voters in race after race after race, and sort of set the standard for the rest of us.

JIM LEHRER: And he was a gentleman…

DAVID BROOKS: He certainly was.

JIM LEHRER: … of the utmost, yes. Thank you both.