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Shields, Brooks on ‘Flexible’ U.S. Policy in Middle East, Deficit Plans

April 15, 2011 at 6:11 PM EDT
Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks discuss the week's top political news, including President Obama's declaration of a military stalemate in Libya and the looming battles in Washington over the debt ceiling and the 2012 budget.

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

David, what do you think about the U.S. policy toward Libya and the rest of the Middle East? And is it in fact workable? And is it working?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, it’s flexible.


DAVID BROOKS: I wouldn’t want to draw a line and say there is a standard, but if you are going to intervene, you have got to have two things. One, there has to be a moral interest in doing so. Two, there has to be a national interest. And, three — like I said, there are going to be three things.


DAVID BROOKS: There has — it has to be practical.

And, so, we — that’s — you’re to the going to meet all three standards in every country. In some countries, it is just not going to be practical to do something in a big way. So, in Libya, we found it practical to do something. And I think we have prevented some massacres there, Gadhafi now apparently using cluster bombs, banned weapons, against his own people.

I think it is right to be there to try to prevent that and keep the pressure on that regime. But in a place like Bahrain, it doesn’t pass the threshold. So, it might be morally right to do it. It doesn’t mean we have to intervene everywhere it is morally right.

JIM LEHRER: What do you think, Mark? The term that was used a moment ago was inconvenient inconsistencies. Is that U.S. policy?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I think David has put his finger on it. There are — there is no single policy.

I mean, understand this, Jim. For the past 30-plus years, 33 years, the policy of the Middle East of the United States have been established by peace talks between — involving Jimmy Carter and Anwar Sadat. And that gave a structure to that relationship. And that’s gone out the window.

And what we have is not an anti-American movement. It’s an educated, unemployed, freedom-seeking movement in most of those countries. And that’s what is — I think has to be nurtured and encouraged. And, obviously, there are limits as to what you can do.

I don’t think the United States is about to send troops to another country at this point.


All right, back to this country, David. So, it’s now Obama vs. Ryan on how to cut the deficit. Who is — who’s — who’s ahead?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, it depends if you mean politically or substantively. Politically, Obama is ahead.

JIM LEHRER: Both ways.

DAVID BROOKS: Both ways.

Well, politically, clearly, if you take a look at the Republican idea, Republicans fundamentally believe that Medicare and these programs are fundamentally unsustainable. There are tens of trillions of dollars of unfunded liability. You have got to change them.

And I happen to think they are right about that. Now, how you do the change is up to them, but I think they have got the scope of the problem right. Nonetheless, it is certainly true the American people don’t want to accept that or don’t believe that. And, so, politically, Obama is absolutely right to jump all over the Republicans and to have his own plan.

And his own plan, I thought, was politically astute — again, just sticking with the politics — because he came out in favor of some cuts and some deficit reductions, but he didn’t actually name any of them.

He said: I’m going to get a commission, and the commission will come up with some cuts. I’m going to get another commission, and they’re going to come up with some tax increases. And then I’m going to ask the Pentagon to come up with some weapons programs we’re going to shut down. I’m not going to give you any specifics. I’m just going to have some commissions.

And so I thought, politically, he did a very effective job of demonizing the Republicans, raising the parts of their program that are very unpopular, and then appearing responsible, and maybe putting us on a path to some sort of fiscal responsibility but not really specifying how.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree the president did an effective job?

MARK SHIELDS: I think the president did a remarkable job. I mean, understand this, Jim.

Since the election, there had been an erosion of Democratic enthusiasm for the president. The president since then had the bipartisan deal with Republicans in December in the rump session of Congress, then had gotten cozy with the Chamber of Commerce, which had spent hundreds of millions of dollars trying to beat out Democrats’ brains in 2010, in many cases successfully.

He got best buddies with Jeffrey Immelt of General Electric, which it turns out hadn’t paid any taxes. I mean, so Democrats are saying, wait a minute, who is this guy? And all of a sudden, he revealed himself to be a Democrat, to be president of the United States and a Democrat, and to make a compelling, strong case against the Ryan plan, which Republicans — not a single Democrat voted for it today in the House as it passed.

And I think he drew the lines very dramatically as to — I mean, it’s not a question of taxes. The question is who pays the taxes? And he certainly stands in the line from Harry Truman forward and Lyndon Johnson of somebody who believes in Medicare.

Republicans — don’t forget, it’s been an article of faith that — their opposition to national health insurance, except when it involves Republican members of Congress.


JIM LEHRER: Other than that…

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. Well, I mean, he did rally the left.

I mean, the speech was strong in rallying the left, as Mark said. He called Republicans un-American. That tends to rally people, I guess, when you call their opponents un-American. But, you know, substantively, it still does matter.

And here, I have a question Mark. Maybe he does sincerely want to follow through on the cuts that he sort of gestured toward. He gave us headings under which future cuts would fall. But I do think, if you look at the program, it essentially excuses seniors and the middle class from any shared sacrifice. And I just don’t think we can solve a problem this size excusing seniors and the middle class.

JIM LEHRER: But the president and Secretary Geithner on this program that same night said, look, if there is going to be deficit reduction, you’re not going to do it without raising taxes.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. That, I absolutely…

JIM LEHRER: And then he drew a line.

DAVID BROOKS: Right. And he’s absolutely right about that.

JIM LEHRER: He is right, you think?

DAVID BROOKS: Right. So, but — he is absolutely right. But there are simply not — even if you did it by raising taxes — and this is a very tax-heavy plan — there are simply not enough rich people to pay for the tens of trillions of dollars in unfunded deficits these programs are racking up.

And so I think you have to talk about the middle class. You have to talk about seniors. And his program is very careful to not touch those third rails.

MARK SHIELDS: It’s not a tax-heavy plan. If you want to talk about a tax-heavy plan, come up with the plan that was authored, written by Alice Rivlin, a Democrat, and Pete Domenici, a longtime Republican senator. Theirs was $2 of cuts, $2 of revenue.

Obama’s is like the Simpson-Bowles. It’s $2 of cuts — I agree with you, the lacks of specific — only $1 of tax increase. And so, I think that the case he has to make is: I believe in these programs. The program is in trouble. And if you want it saved, I am the guy that’s going to save it. I believe in it.

And I agree with David that the sacrifice is going to have to be universal. It cannot be simply — it can’t be done by the wealthy. But I would point out that the wealthy, as the president pointed out very well in the speech, the top 1 percent have seen, on the average, their income go up $250 million in this past decade, while 90 percent of lower earners, 90 percent, have seen their average income go down.

And that’s where the Republicans just don’t get it, in my judgment. They say fairness doesn’t really come into it. You have got to believe in the market.

JIM LEHRER: And, David, the Republicans said in response to what Mark just repeated that the president said, that’s class warfare. That’s unfair.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. And, here, I think they’re wrong. I do think we have to raise taxes on the top 1 percent. I think we have to have a big tax reform that raises revenue. And here…

JIM LEHRER: But that’s raising taxes, too.

DAVID BROOKS: Right. Exactly. But you have got to raise revenue across more than just the rich. We have got to raise it on the rich to some degree, but you have got — there’s just — as I said, there’s just not enough.

And so you’re going to have — what you have to do is do what Bowles-Simpson suggested, which is lower the rates and broaden the base and close those loopholes. I think the Bowles-Simpson plan on tax reform had the right plan.

Now, the president sort of said, he suggested maybe he was a little for Bowles-Simpson. But he also says, oh, we have got to raise the rates. So he went against Bowles-Simpson. And so he is sort of two minds about that. So, you know — go ahead.

JIM LEHRER: No, I was just going to change the subject…



JIM LEHRER: … speaking of Republicans. That was — that is a segue line to you, Mark.

Mitt Romney looks like he is seriously going to run for president. And all the publicity is going to a guy name Donald Trump. What do you make of that?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, Mitt Romney is certainly in the Republican tradition. Republicans like candidates who have run before. I mean, they really do. I mean, Ronald Reagan had to run in ’68 and ’76 before he was the nominee in ’80. And obviously Bob Dole had run three times before he became the nominee. George Herbert Walker had run.

So, Mitt Romney, having run in 2008, that gives him a certain credibility and stature. He’s a businessman, admittedly a downsizer on occasion, but nevertheless, fits that mold.

And the biggest name, the sleeper item that is going for him is that Americans are far more tolerant today of a Mormon than they were four years ago.

JIM LEHRER: It really hurt him four years ago, didn’t it?

MARK SHIELDS: It really did.

JIM LEHRER: A kind of unconscious…

MARK SHIELDS: They didn’t want to confront it.


MARK SHIELDS: And Romney himself didn’t want to confront it.

But Americans have — just like we’re more tolerant of a Jewish president or a gay president or a Latino president, they have grown — a woman — they have grown more tolerant of a Mormon, not to the point where they’re enthusiastic about it.

But the Republican problem is Donald Trump. And it’s this problem, Jim. People say, oh…

JIM LEHRER: It’s a joke.

MARK SHIELDS: Joke. Here we are, when voters are most concerned about jobs, the economy, health care, the deficit, wars, terrorism, and what is he talking about? He’s talking about whether the president was born on Jupiter or Brazil or someplace else.

And this is heroin in the political bloodstream, because the most important face of the Republican Party one year from today will not be John Boehner or Paul Ryan or Mitch McConnell. It will be the Republican nominee. And that nominee will be framed and influenced in large part by the debate.

And don’t forget, in 2008, Tom Tancredo, a little-known congressman from Colorado, so forced the debate on immigration for the Republican Party, to this day, they haven’t recovered. They’re not competitive among Latino voters.

And I’m telling you, this is poison for the Republicans. And they ought to get rid of him as soon as they can.

JIM LEHRER: Poison, heroin in the bloodstream?

DAVID BROOKS: People have tried to get rid of Donald Trump.

He’s a cheap thrill, where they can say something outrageous. I think it’s mostly a Romney problem, more than a Republican problem, because none of the other candidates are known, the Tim Pawlentys, the Mitch Daniels, those people, Haley — even Haley Barbour, not known. But Mitt Romney should be known, and Mitt Romney should be polling higher in the polls against Trump.

And the fact that Romney is not doing as well as Donald Trump is a sign that, even as the front-runner who already ran in these primaries, his support is softer than I think it should be.

The Trump thing, I think people just — they just want to blow off steam. They’re angry. They’re playing with their vote right now. When they actually turn the frame of mind as who do I want to be the nominee, they’re going to shift toward more serious candidates.

But there’s no reservoir for Mitt Romney. That’s my big lesson…

MARK SHIELDS: Good point, David, before Haley Barbour and Mitch Daniels — and may not run — are governors who can point to — Tim Pawlenty — can point to their gubernatorial records as their credentials, their calling cards.

Mitt Romney’s gubernatorial record, he ran to the left of Ted Kennedy when he ran against him on gay rights and on choice, abortion rights. And at the same time, his signature issue is health care, which is the organizing principle of opposition to Barack Obama among Republicans. So, he really can’t talk about his record as governor.

JIM LEHRER: And the negative comments on Romney are everywhere right now.

DAVID BROOKS: Right. And I sort of think he’s the front-runner, but there’s clearly no enthusiasm for him.

I also think, for the sitting governors, it’s going to be very useful in the Republican primary to be in the fight right now, not to point to something you might have done 10 or 15 years ago. So, for Daniels and Barbour, they’re going to say, I’m doing this budget right now. I think that will be very dynamic, compared to the candidates who are formers.

JIM LEHRER: So your theory is that it’s a Romney problem, and the only way are you going to fix the Romney problem is to have a Haley Barbour or somebody new, or…

DAVID BROOKS: I think a lot of us have gone in thinking Romney was the front-runner. He has been there before. And I think a lot of us have to think, he’s not a very — if he is the front-runner at all, he is certainly not a strong one.

MARK SHIELDS: He’s not in bad shape. The Wall Street Journal-NBC poll, he’s 40 percent among the people who are really running the first and second choice, which is a pretty strong position. There’s just not a lot of intensity and passion for him, I agree.

JIM LEHRER: But you think, don’t worry about Trump if you’re a Republican?

DAVID BROOKS: He will not be the Republican nominee, I will bet my bottom dollar.

MARK SHIELDS: Oh, come on. Don’t say that.

JIM LEHRER: Well, he just did.


JIM LEHRER: Thank you both.

MARK SHIELDS: Thank you.