TOPICS > Politics

Shields and Brooks on Obama vs. Trump, Security Team Shuffles

April 29, 2011 at 5:30 PM EDT
Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times Columnist David Brooks discuss the week's top political news, including the release of the president's long-form birth certificate, budget battles in Congress and changes in the administration's national security team.

JEFFREY BROWN: And that, of course, brings us to the royal analysis of Shields and Brooks, syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks.


We have to start with the royal wedding.

Mark, are you a royalist, a small-R republican? What did you make of all that?

MARK SHIELDS: I’m a small-D Democrat.


MARK SHIELDS: And as an Irish-American, I was not raised, I didn’t regard myself as an uncritical admirer of the British royal family.

However, at a time of economic trouble and sort of down spirits, I thought this was a good-news story with wonderful visuals today and a very appealing couple. And let’s hope the happy ever after works.

And just one positive thing I do want to say, Prince William is in military service. He’s a rescue pilot. And he wants to go to Afghanistan. His brother did go to Afghanistan, as did — his three uncles all served. And it really is an admirable tradition for those of privilege and power to do so. And I wish it was something that prevailed on this side of the pond as well.


DAVID BROOKS: I was raised in a culture of, think Yiddish, act British.


DAVID BROOKS: So, we are big Anglophiles in my family. And not since Alistair Cooke dined alone have we had have as much Anglophilia.

JEFFREY BROWN: … watch it on PBS, right?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, right. Exactly.


DAVID BROOKS: And, so, I’m not only intellectually, but a believer in the monarchy, especially for Britain. I have covered British politics a bit.

And we have Gettysburg. We have Lincoln. We have a Constitution. British identity is interwoven with the royal family. For most Britons, it is part of their identity. It’s part of what holds the country together. They don’t have a constitution. So, I’m for it.

And you see all the joy on the streets, and I think that exemplifies it.

JEFFREY BROWN: But what is it about royalty, and particularly British royalty, that grabs so many people, so many Americans?

JEFFREY BROWN: Didn’t we throw them off…

DAVID BROOKS: Well, yes. That was a mistake, maybe.



DAVID BROOKS: No. I mean, there are a couple of things.

First of all, this is a wedding of really good-looking, really rich people with great real estate. And so people tend to like those things.


MARK SHIELDS: Donald Trump’s next nuptials.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. No, he wouldn’t have had a gown that nice.


DAVID BROOKS: And I think there is — there is vestigial respect for aristocracy when it’s done well. When it is done with restraint, when it is done with a sense of service, like Mark said, I think people have respect for that wherever it is found in the world, and especially for those of have been weaned on PBS for the British royal family.


MARK SHIELDS: I just — yes, nobody does pageantry better than the British.

JEFFREY BROWN: That’s for sure.

MARK SHIELDS: I mean, they truly do.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, I think you just mentioned Donald Trump.

Another event that happened today — the president of the United States went and made an important announcement about his birth certificate. Was he right to do that? Why did he do that? Was he right to do that? What was going on?

MARK SHIELDS: He was right to do it.

And let’s be fair and blunt. Donald Trump made him do it. And the president had to do it. He had to do it. I think all one has to remember is something that happened in this country seven years ago called the John Kerry campaign. And we had the swift-boating, which became a verb, adjourned, of Kerry failing to respond and react to the charges.

This was growing. And the concern among Democrats was that, among independents, there was sort of a growing sense of this unrebutted. An unrebutted charge somehow gains traction in our poisoned political atmosphere.

And I think the president had to do it. Ideally, politically, you would wait until that magic moment when are you on the same stage with whoever the person was who was either tolerating the charge or making the charge, and present it in “Perry Mason” fashion to them.

But I think they felt they had to. And it was interfering with his conversation and talking about issues that he feels are important to the country and to his own re-election.

JEFFREY BROWN: What do you think? Were there — he waited awhile. Were there risks in doing it? Does it elevate Donald Trump?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. I would have released the document. I would probably have released it months and months ago, but I would have released the document maybe without the presidential press conference.

Clearly, the document will — for all rational people, will settle it. It will not really settle it, but for most people, it will settle it, and so we can move on. Whether I would have had the president go out there, have a split-screen with Donald Trump, step on the big news of David Petraeus and Leon Panetta getting appointments, and whether I would have him complain about the Washington debate — and this is something that I know consumes a lot of his mind, the aggravation with the debate in Washington.

And, sometimes, it is aggravating. I just think it’s rarely a good thing for the president to complain about the debate, complain about the media. You control a lot of the agenda. Just move on. Talk about the serious stuff. So, I would have released the document without a lot of the…

JEFFREY BROWN: For the same reasons, for the swift boat fears?

DAVID BROOKS: Right. Exactly. I mean, it was — it gained traction with an amazing number of Americans, despite any evidence. And conspiracy theories and oddball theories have a strange purchase on the human mind.

JEFFREY BROWN: But do you think it’s done now? Is it buried?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, it’s done — David is right — for the rational majority in the country.

Let’s be very blunt about this. This never was — it never had a factual premise to it. There was a delegitimizing effort about the Obama presidency. They couldn’t do it on the basis of the election. He won overwhelmingly in the Electoral College and popular. There are no sexual escapades, a la Clinton, that they can brand him with and accuse him of illegitimacy.

There is no Whitewater financial dealings they have been able to find. I mean, if Barack Obama’s father had been born in New Zealand, this never would have happened. I mean, let’s be very frank about that. I mean, the fact that he was born an African, his father and — was an African, I think, is part, parcel and central to this whole story. And nobody…

JEFFREY BROWN: Do you mean race or do you mean African…

MARK SHIELDS: I mean race and Africa — Africa and race synonymously.

And I don’t think there is any question. That is the only place at which they could sort of attack or make an attack. I mean, Mike Huckabee, to his everlasting credit, the former Arkansas governor, whenever he’s confronted on this by one of these fire-eaters, says — he said, do you think if this were true that Bill and Hillary Clinton wouldn’t have found out about it in 2008?

And it’s so irrational.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, I also — I agree with that, though it’s also there is a culture of a knockout blow. There is a dream that we’re going to find something on each president that will knock them out.

And it’s never a policy thing. We will knock them out with a scandal. We will knock them out with this. And so people hunger for that one magic switch which will make their political opponents go away. They’re not going away.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, Congress was out this week, but they were back in their districts. And some Republicans found themselves under some pushback, some pressure, particularly over the subject of Medicare.

How big a deal was that? It happened in New Hampshire. It happened in Florida. Even Paul Ryan got some of it in Wisconsin. Big deal?

MARK SHIELDS: New Hampshire, Pennsylvania.

It is. It’s a big deal in the sense that it is a bookend — or at least the making of a bookend to what happened to the Democrats in 2009 in their town meetings, when they had to — were put squarely on the defensive by angry constituents about the pending health-care plan.

JEFFREY BROWN: You see a comparison.

MARK SHIELDS: Comparison. And at the time, Democrats said, well, the Republicans were organizing these things. And Republicans are now saying, well, Democrats are organizing these things.

But, in both cases, the people under attack, the Democrats in 2009, the Republicans in 2011, do not have a succinct answer to — or a two-sentence, one-paragraph response. I mean, Democrats then said, well, it’s only going to take effect in five years. Well, Republicans are saying, this thing isn’t going to affect anybody under 55, and it’s only a blueprint. It isn’t even legislation.

I mean, that isn’t exactly the way to get — quite an uncertain trumpet there. So, Republicans are, I think, on the defensive on the issue.

JEFFREY BROWN: What do you think?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, they walked into it knowing that. Mitch McConnell used to present his colleagues with the polling data on what happens if you try to fiddle with Medicare, and people do not like it.

And so they walked in knowing this. I mean, they are getting pushback because they are going to eventually be cutting some benefits. And people don’t like that.

To me, the story, though — and we have all seen the polls for decades on the unpopularity of this sort of thing — to me, the story is how relatively un-unpopular it is.

JEFFREY BROWN: How — say that again — relatively un-unpopular.

DAVID BROOKS: How relatively… Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: In other words…


DAVID BROOKS: So, for example, there’s — polling is mixed, but there was a Gallup poll which had support for the Ryan plan over the Obama plan, and, interestingly, highest support among seniors and lowest support among people in their 20s.

And then in other polls, you ask people, who do you trust on budget issues, the Republicans are either at advantage or equal. And so, to me, the surprise is not that there are some protests. That was bound to happen. But there is a rising awareness that, whatever one thinks of the Ryan plan, we can’t go on with the Medicare benefits that we have, and you have got to do some adjusting.

So, I’m surprised by how much support there is for it.

JEFFREY BROWN: But does that suggest that these protests would not have an impact once they come back and get back to work?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, to me, I have literally argued that this is political. I mean, I said on the show the other week that this — the Ryan plan makes it likely that Obama is going to get re-elected. I thought it would be that unpopular.

I think I might have been slightly wrong, that it is less unpopular than I would have thought.

MARK SHIELDS: I think it’s more unpopular than David has — does believe.

And I think one test of it will be, Harry Reid, the Democratic majority leader in the Senate, wants to bring the Ryan plan, which passed the House overwhelmingly — there was only four Republican House members voting against it, not voting for it — to bring it up for a vote in the Senate.

And there is very little enthusiasm among Republican senators to do that. I mean, Olympia Snowe is up for re-election. Does she want to vote for the Ryan plan in name? How about — how about Dick Lugar? How about Scott Brown in Massachusetts? I mean, that’s going to be an awkward vote for a lot of Senate Republicans.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, one of you brought up the other substantive thing that happened this week, which was the shuffling of the national security team, Leon Panetta coming in to replace Robert Gates, Gen. Petraeus moving over to the CIA.

What do you think of the moves?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, in the first place, I think they are both excellent men and great public servants. So, I think it’s a fine move.

A lot of issues that surrounded it, Panetta being somebody good who can control the defense budget. And people have said, with Petraeus going to CIA, it further mingles the military and the intelligence communities.

JEFFREY BROWN: We had that discussion last night.


JEFFREY BROWN: So, do you take that — is it a serious issue?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, I don’t think it is to be critiqued. I think it is the reality. We’re not fighting the Soviet Union anymore. We’re fighting terrorists, asymmetric warfare.

And intelligence is just going to be a lot more intermingled with war fighting. So I think it is just an inevitable consequence of the struggle we are in.

JEFFREY BROWN: What do you make of this?

MARK SHIELDS: I’m a little bit of a traditionalist on it.

The Central Intelligence Agency was founded to have civilian control of intelligence. I mean, it was after the war and after OSS. And it was a civilian entity, so that it would not be — intelligence would not be funneled through a military perspective and prism.

I am a big admirer of Leon Panetta’s. And I think Gen. Petraeus is somebody — given the dicey, difficult, strained relations between the United States and Pakistan, I think he is — I think he brings to it very special talent to try and work out what has obviously become open hostility between the two intelligence services.

And I think that Panetta, Leon Panetta has a tougher job than Bob Gates did. I mean, Bob Gates was succeeding a controversial, polarizing, bombastic secretary of the defense in Don Rumsfeld. He’s been cool, competent. He’s the one person in the Cabinet that Barack Obama could not fire. I mean, he had tenure. I mean, he — you know, and he earned it, don’t get me wrong.

But he — and he played it. I mean, I think Afghanistan was a tribute in part to his influence and his position, as well as to Gen. Petraeus’.

But I think the other one is Ryan Crocker coming back as ambassador is a coup…

JEFFREY BROWN: To Afghanistan.

MARK SHIELDS: To Afghanistan — is a coup of enormous proportion, I mean, a man of great skill, great knowledge, and was comfortable in his retirement at the Bush Library.

And to be able to persuade him to come back, given his knowledge, and working with Gen. Petraeus in the past, I think is a great…

JEFFREY BROWN: And just very briefly, does it signal any shift in policy or is this continuing…

DAVID BROOKS: No, I really don’t. I think it’s more a continuation.

But we have somebody who — are intimately familiar with the problems they’re facing. So, I think it is more a continuation.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, David Brooks, Mark Shields, thanks very much.

MARK SHIELDS: Thank you.

DAVID BROOKS: Thank you.