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Shields and Brooks on Public’s View of Libya Efforts, Debate on Entitlements

April 22, 2011 at 6:23 PM EST
Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks discuss the week's top political news with Jim Lehrer, including Americans' opinions of the U.S. involvement in the Libya intervention and the brewing legislative battles over the deficit and the debt ceiling.
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JIM LEHRER: And finally tonight, the analysis of Shields and Brooks, syndicated columnist Mark Shields, New York Times columnist David Brooks.

Mark, incredible series Robin has.

MARK SHIELDS: Oh, remarkable, remarkable.

JIM LEHRER: Yes. Yes.

MARK SHIELDS: All the more so because of Robin’s own grandson.

JIM LEHRER: Yes, absolutely. And personalization of the story, any story is — always brings it so — so home to everybody.

Look, polls reflect a growing opposition as you know, to the U.S.-NATO military action in Libya. What is behind that? What is going on?

MARK SHIELDS: It’s in your question.

Arthur Schlesinger, the great American historian, said, all wars are popular for the first 30 days. This — Libya hasn’t made it to 30 days. And part of it is, it isn’t a war. Is it a conflict? Is it engagement? You know, is it incursion?

And, so, you have got 40 percent of the people who say, we don’t — we didn’t want to go in there at all. And then you have got the people who say, well, it’s OK to go in there and under the auspices of protecting the civilians. But if you are going to protect the civilians, why not take him out is the growing…

JIM LEHRER: Meaning Gadhafi.

MARK SHIELDS: Gadhafi.

JIM LEHRER: Yes. Right.

MARK SHIELDS: So, you are in that terrible no-man’s land, really, with — you know, now we’re sending in armed unmanned drones. And if that isn’t to take him out, I don’t know what it is — what they’re intended for.

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

How do you read what is going on here with the public mind?

DAVID BROOKS: Right.

Well, nobody — even in the White House, they didn’t want to — they weren’t eager to do this. They felt they had no choice, part because of the humanitarian, part because the Europeans wanted to do it, and part because of the Arab spring.

And so they didn’t know where it was heading. And, naturally, the American people don’t know where it is heading. And so I think what they are trying to do in the White House is probe and see what can happen. And the one thing — I think a lot of the coverage, in part because where McCain went, to Benghazi, today is to emphasize the rebels.

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

DAVID BROOKS: But my conversations with people in the White House suggest, you know, maybe the rebels will defeat the Gadhafi forces. They don’t really expect that. They’re more hopeful that there will be defections from within the regime.

And so the drone — using the drones is a difficult choice, because, on the one hand, you could offend people in the Muslim world and Arab world. The drones are seen as a very offensive weapon, as a sign of arrogance, of Americans flying past 30,000 feet and killing people, often innocent people.

And so there is a tremendous psychological risk in using the drones. On the positive side, if you are a Gadhafi lieutenant and you think there might be a drone out to hit your car, you’re more likely to defect.

And so that’s sort of the tough calculation they made in trying to use the drones, and hopefully ratchet up the pressure on those to defect.

JIM LEHRER: And then you mix that in with the overview of — overview policy for the Middle East. And we just had Judy’s discussion and reporting at the beginning of the program. Over 50, 60 people were killed, protesters, peaceful protesters and yet there’s no talk of doing anything about Syria.

MARK SHIELDS: There isn’t.

I mean, I think there’s a growing recognition that if this is going to — this marvelous spring in the Middle East is going to really come to bear some significant fruit and bear enduring change, it probably involves jobs in Egypt for a lot of educated young people.

I mean, I think that is a real, real test. I mean, the drones bother me, I will be honest with you, because it’s — somehow, it’s a war maker’s or a war theorist’s approach of an ouch less, painless war, that you never have to see the people that — who are feeling the wrath and the full force of these instruments of death.

JIM LEHRER: Would you agree with what they said earlier to Judy, that — Mr. Malley said, hey, look, the script for this — he was talking about Syria specifically — the script for this is not going to be written in Washington. It’s going to be written in Damascus. It’s going to be written in Syria.

That’s true of all these places, right?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, that’s true of all these places. And we are more or less bystanders.

But we, in the outside world, can influence a little on the margins, I suppose. In Egypt, there was certainly some influence, in Libya, more. But in order to influence, you have got to be able to have a national interest. You have got to have humanitarian interests, and you have got to be able to do it.

And, in Syria, it is beyond our reach to really do too much. We can issue what we believe in. But I don’t think we’d be involved in Libya unless there was the Arab spring because I think the tipping factor in whether to get involved…

JIM LEHRER: Egypt — Tunisia, Egypt, and then…

DAVID BROOKS: Right.

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

DAVID BROOKS: It is a unique moment in history. And if we are ever going to be aggressive, this is probably the moment to do what we can. But it is very much on the margin.

And one of the things we’re seeing is, it really matters whether the country is ethnically cohesive, like Egypt, or is not, like Bahrain or like Libya. And it really matters how strong the institutions are, as they are strong in Tunisia. They are not strong in other places. And it’s all being settled there.

We have marginal influence. But that doesn’t mean we have no influence. And I think we should use what we have.

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

Meanwhile, Mark, speaking of the polls, there is a poll out, a New York Times-CBS poll, talking about a sour, kind of dark mood that Americans have, particularly about the economy.

Is that justified?

MARK SHIELDS: Yes.

There are a couple of numbers that jump out, in particularly the New York Times-CBS poll. And the first is that, right, more people are negative. They think the economy is getting worse, rather than better.

And the other one, Jim, is the one which is the real definitive measurement of American public opinion at any time. And that is, is the country headed in the right direction, wrong track?

JIM LEHRER: Yes. They asked that — they have been asking that for years.

MARK SHIELDS: That’s right.

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

MARK SHIELDS: And when it reaches two-thirds wrong direction, it usually means the party in power is in serious trouble.

And it is at 70 percent now. That’s — which is, I think, the high in the Obama administration’s tenure. The number is — the economy is — we have been told it’s darkest just before the dawn, things are getting better, we’re just — next corner, we’re going to turn around and things are going to be better and all…

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

MARK SHIELDS: The administration’s position is, talk it up. Don’t be overly cheerful, but talk it up. You know, we have got — jobs are growing. And then, all of a sudden, you hit this point where there is a realization that things aren’t that significantly better. And on top of everything else, you have got an increase in the cost of living, particularly gas prices…

MARK SHIELDS: … which is sticker shock.

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

MARK SHIELDS: If you have been filling up your tank for 28 bucks and all of a sudden it is $41 and you have got to do that twice a week, that is really reaching a tipping point with people.

And I think that’s what contributes to it, that sense, not simply of gas prices, but am I going to be able to make it, in addition to the economic news.

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

Do you read it the same way, particularly on…

DAVID BROOKS: A bit, though, you know, the gas pieces are powerful but I guess what concerns me more is, there’s a decoupling between the mood and the economy.

And so for example, a couple of Fridays ago, we were talking about a pretty good jobs number.

JIM LEHRER: Sure. Yes. Yes.

DAVID BROOKS: And there have been moderately good or modestly good job numbers for a long time.

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

DAVID BROOKS: And we all have a model in our head that when the economy turns around — in the early ’80s, you had a very serious recession or in the Great Depression — usually, when the economy turns around, the polls track along with it.

And now I’m wondering if we are seeing a decoupling. And that could be because of gas prices. It could be because the economy has deeper structural problems that won’t be healed by the economic recovery. It could be because people have just lost faith in the government, in both parties, and in the ability of the government to really handle problems and the governability of the country and the fear of decline.

I happen to think that last factor is a very serious factor, which could cause us to see a decoupling. So Obama people are very fond of saying, you know, Reagan was down, but then the economy recovered. He came back and won in 1984.

That parallel may no longer hold.

MARK SHIELDS: They do see, Jim, just to follow up on David’s point…

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

MARK SHIELDS: … that 11th-hour, 59th-minute, you know, resolution…

JIM LEHRER: System of government.

MARK SHIELDS: … whether government was going to resolve — that just contributes to the further sense of pessimism and the sourness of the mood.

JIM LEHRER: Has the president gotten any traction, do you think, Mark, on his — going after the Republicans on the grounds of lowering taxes for the rich and fooling with Medicare?

MARK SHIELDS: I think — I think this is potentially a game-changer.

JIM LEHRER: For him.

MARK SHIELDS: For him. I really do.

I think the — David and I can argue about the policy, which I think is morally weak on the Ryan plan and puts those most vulnerable at most risk but you can’t argue about the politics. The politics of it are terrible. They have given the Democrats an incredible opening.

The Democrats were reeling, have been on the defensive politically. And you talk about the town meetings that Republican congressmen are having during this congressional break. They are on the defensive, saying, no, I’m not going to abolish Medicare. I’m not going to dismantle it.

They have given an incredible opening to the Democrats to change the conversation, to put the president and the Democrats on the offensive.

JIM LEHRER: Do you think they are changing the conversation?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. I mean, they knew they would open — be creating an opening. I mean, they walked into this with their eyes wide open.

JIM LEHRER: The Republicans knew it, right.

DAVID BROOKS: I mean, they can read the polls like anybody else.

JIM LEHRER: Sure.

DAVID BROOKS: And raising taxes on the rich is popular. Cutting defense spending is pretty popular. Cutting — any — changing Medicare in any way, shape or form is extremely unpopular, including with Republicans.

And, so, they knew they were walking into it. That is why I think it was sort of brave of them to do this, because they do point to an elemental reality, that it’s — we can’t balance the budget just by raising taxes on the rich and cutting defense spending. You have to touch the middle class and you have to touch seniors.

And so I agree with Mark on the politics. And I — last week, I called the election for Obama on the basis of that.

JIM LEHRER: You did. I remember that. I remember that.

DAVID BROOKS: I’m already regretting that, of course, by the way.

MARK SHIELDS: This week, he is calling it — this week, he is calling it for Mitt Romney.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. It is going to be Mitt Romney.

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVID BROOKS: No, but, you know, I overstated it, but it is definitely an advantage that the Democrats are happy to walk into.

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

MARK SHIELDS: Republicans have done this. They did it in 1985 after — I mean, 2005, after George W. Bush’s re-election, they came out with the privatization of — in Social Security.

JIM LEHRER: Social Security.

MARK SHIELDS: In 1995, with Newt Gingrich and the new Congress, they were going to cut Medicare spending. In 1985, with a Republican Senate, they wanted to cut the COLA, the COLA increase.

I mean, they want to go after the social programs. And each time, they take this election win as a mandate to do it, and they end up…

DAVID BROOKS: Well, but I can say, on the substance, they are right each time. I mean…

JIM LEHRER: You think it is courageous to do that?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I mean, as I said, your average Medicare enrollee, average income, making I don’t know what it is, $50,000 a year, is paying in $145,000 over the lifetime into the system, taking out $450,000.

Well, there is a big gap there. And that is unsustainable. And so the $450,000 has to be brought down over time. And they are absolutely right to try to bring it down. It just happens to be extremely unpopular to try to talk about that.

MARK SHIELDS: I just think there is a moral test to every budget. And when you are doing it, those who are suffering the most are those who don’t have a voice at the table, I mean and they really don’t have a place at the table.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, that’s our grandchildren.

MARK SHIELDS: It’s our grandchildren. It’s the poor. It’s the unemployed. It’s the jobless. It’s the homeless. I mean, these people…

JIM LEHRER: And that is the Democratic message, right?

MARK SHIELDS: But they’re not even — they’re not even — well, the Democrats haven’t been particularly solicitous or championing of them either.

But I mean, the Republicans just kind of write them off like they are not existing.

DAVID BROOKS: One rabid point, who is taking money away from the homeless, programs for the homeless? It is Medicare. That is what is taking money. That is what squeezing all these other programs.

MARK SHIELDS: No, no, not when you’re talking about making Medicaid into a private…

JIM LEHRER: Goodbye. Goodbye.

(LAUGHTER)

JIM LEHRER: Nice talking to you all.