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Shields and Brooks on Secretive SEALs, Obama’s Bin Laden Raid, GOP Debate

May 6, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks discuss the week's top political news, including President Obama's standing after the killing of Osama bin Laden, the military elite that carried out the mission and the first debate among 2012 GOP hopefuls.
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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, did you know about SEAL Team Six until this — until a few days ago?

MARK SHIELDS: No.

JIM LEHRER: Did you, David?

DAVID BROOKS: No, I did not.

JIM LEHRER: Yes. It’s fascinating.

MARK SHIELDS: Truly fascinating. And, I mean, talk about a great segment, fascinating spokespersons. I mean, they were compelling.

JIM LEHRER: Yes, the two — you mean the two men themselves.

MARK SHIELDS: The two of them, yes.

JIM LEHRER: You could tell that they were ready to go.

MARK SHIELDS: They were.

(LAUGHTER)

JIM LEHRER: If called upon, they could go now.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes.

I often think why the military really is the one institution that is — that has high regard — and we have had loss of faith in all these institution. And why is that? And one theory, I think, is that they really tear people down.

It’s not about ego in the military. They tear down the ego, before you build up towards service to something else. And we actually have very few institutions that do that anymore. And there are pros and cons to tearing people down. But it does lead to this sort of understated sense of service and commitment to something other than themselves, and an aversion to publicity, which is admirable.

JIM LEHRER: And the idea, as both of them said, that they function as teams.

DAVID BROOKS: Right.

JIM LEHRER: And that’s where the breaking down goes, and then you come back together. You go down there as individuals; you come out as a team.

DAVID BROOKS: And we have done well in general, most institutions, in celebrating the individual, not so much the team you’re on.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes. No, I just think it — I agree with you. They do break down.

But what they put in the place is a sense of your dependence upon each other. And they submerge rampant individualism, which our society too often celebrates.

DAVID BROOKS: Right. Exactly.

JIM LEHRER: What about Ray’s question, though, about scrutiny, about oversight? Are these — is there a danger that these guys are so good, and so at the command of the president, that other people may not know what’s going on until it’s too late?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I think, in this particular instance, they did inform the leadership.

JIM LEHRER: Congress.

MARK SHIELDS: Congress. But I thought the point of scrutiny that the senator made about watching this did bring to it a level of civilian control and oversight that was unimaginable in an earlier era.

JIM LEHRER: All right, to the killing of Osama bin Laden.

David, do you agree with the conventional wisdom that that forever has changed — not forever, but has changed the way Americans view President Obama?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. No, I really don’t think so. I think he will — his reputation is certainly enhanced. He made a brave decision. He stood by it. And I think the reputation of — America feels better because it has been a long time since we have had something function really well.

JIM LEHRER: Because of guys like this.

DAVID BROOKS: Guys like that.

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

DAVID BROOKS: So — and even for President Obama, it has been a long time since he has done something popular. Whether you agree or not with stimulus or health care or GM, they were not popular.

And now he’s done something really popular. And he did a difficult thing and enhanced his authority. But will it transform his view? I’m doubtful, because this is not central to his presidency. The economy and other things are central to his presidency. And when you look at his standing, it’s gone up significantly in the last week, and it’s gone up in his handling of terror.

But overall views about the economy, despite these numbers, have not gone up. And his handling of the economy in some polls was flat, and, in some polls, it went down a little. And I think the economy will still be the central way he will be judged.

JIM LEHRER: Do how do you feel, Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: I think it has changed. And I think it’s changed — there was a growing narrative, Jim, that was getting traction that the president was the professor in chief, that he was too nuanced, that he was leading from the rear, that — perhaps too cerebral, and a question of maybe not ready to pull the trigger, to make the bold statement.

This was a — this was decisive. It was cool. It was bold. And I agree, I mean, that it was a success. And we have been yearning for success. We have been dying for success. But I also think it’s important — if one thinks just historically, since World War II, with the possible exception of the Cuban Missile Crisis, there has not been an unambiguous military intelligence success under a Democratic administration in that long time.

I mean, you have had Vietnam. You had Korea. You had Mogadishu. You had the Iranian hostages. I mean, there really hasn’t. And this was. And…

JIM LEHRER: Just in pure political…

MARK SHIELDS: In pure political — but, you know, in an act of — a decisive act.

And there’s a recognition in the political world that the president really did roll the dice. I mean, this was a high-risk — high-reward, but very high-risk, not only to the brave men involved, but to his own political future.

JIM LEHRER: What do you think about the decision he has made not to release the photographs of Osama — of the dead Osama bin Laden?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, I agree with it. And I think they did it in the right way. It’s really not up to us. It’s up to how people in the Arab world are going to receive it.

And according to the reporting, what they did was, Sec. Clinton and Sec. Gates called around and said, what do you guys think of this? And there was nobody in that region who thought it would help. And so you’re dealing — it’s a rare moment of American cultural sensitivity. And so, I think he made the right call.

JIM LEHRER: Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: I agree.

I think it’s — the commander in chief aspect of the president’s job was on display in the mission itself. This was, I think, the most presidential thing he did this week, was to say no. I mean, there was a growing demand, a lot of people on the Hill saying, they have got to do it, and you have got to them out and show them.

And I thought he showed that there was — it was a gloat-free zone. There was — he said, we’re not going to do the self-congratulatory celebration dance in the end zone of spiking the ball, I think as he put it. And this — it serves no positive purpose at all, other than to satisfy maybe the prurient interest of some people for graphic…

DAVID BROOKS: … a little celebration. I mean, he did go to New York and to the…

MARK SHIELDS: Yes. No, no, but, I mean, it wasn’t — it wasn’t — there wasn’t a “Mission Accomplished” aspect to it. It wasn’t strutting on an aircraft carrier.

DAVID BROOKS: Right.

JIM LEHRER: Do you disagree with that?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, you know, I don’t blame him. I mean, he had a big victory. He went to New York. He went to the base. He took a little stroll. But I think that’s fine. The president, he’s running a campaign.

I do think that there is something a little ambivalent. The debate has really begun stirring about how the information was gathered. And I do think that General — Attorney Gen. Mukasey had a piece in The Journal today saying it was gathered through water-boarding.

And I frankly, don’t know the answer, because the experts are testifying 100 percent on both sides of this issue.

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

DAVID BROOKS: And, so, I don’t know. But it will be — that’s the debate that will be interesting to see how it affects this.

JIM LEHRER: Now, I’m now going to use a tortured segue to say, speaking of debates, there was a — the first Republican presidential debate last night in South Carolina.

And bin Laden, the killing of bin Laden, was a big subject in that debate. The debate was on the FOX News Channel.

Our Kwame Holman has some excerpts.

KWAME HOLMAN: This week’s blockbuster foreign policy development consumed the early part of the first Republican presidential debate of the 2012 cycle, held last night in Greenville, S.C.

Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty credited the president for acting against Osama bin Laden, but stopped his praise there.

TIM PAWLENTY, (R) former Minnesota governor: I do congratulate President Obama for the fine job that he did in taking some tough decisions and being decisive as it related to finding and killing Osama bin Laden. He did a good job. And I tip my cap to him in that moment.

But that moment is not the sum total of America’s foreign policy.

KWAME HOLMAN: And former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum was less taken by the president’s actions.

RICK SANTORUM, (R) former U.S. senator: If you look at what President Obama has done right in foreign policy, it has always been a continuation of the Bush policies. He’s done right by keeping Gitmo open. He’s done right by finishing the job in Iraq. He has done right by trying to win in Afghanistan. Those were existing policies that were in place.

KWAME HOLMAN: But the views of libertarian Texas Congressman Ron Paul highlighted the divide within the GOP over the U.S. role in Afghanistan.

REP. RON PAUL, (R) Texas: Now that he’s killed, boy, it is a wonderful time for this country now to reassess it and get the troops out of Afghanistan and end that war that hasn’t helped us and hasn’t helped anybody in the Middle East.

KWAME HOLMAN: At least half-a-dozen Republicans still weighing a run passed on the debate broadcast by FOX News. The no-shows included those who have moved toward bids, such as Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich.

Those absences left a void that was filled by long-shot candidates, such as former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson, who favors the legalization of marijuana.

GARY JOHNSON, (R) former New Mexico governor: I advocate legalizing marijuana, control it, regulate it, tax it. It’ll never be legal for kids to smoke pot or buy pot. It’ll never be legal to smoke pot or do harm to others.

KWAME HOLMAN: And former Godfather’s Pizza chief executive Herman Cain sought to play up his lack of political experience.

HERMAN CAIN, businessman: I’m proud of the fact, quite frankly, that I haven’t held public office before, because I ask people — most of the people that are in elective office in Washington, D.C., they have held public office before. How is that working for you?

(LAUGHTER)

KWAME HOLMAN: The next GOP presidential debate is scheduled for next month in New Hampshire.

JIM LEHRER: And the winner was?

MARK SHIELDS: The winner was, you know, I mean, Ron Paul, just on sort of a consistent world view.

But Herman Cain gets the award for turning the sow’s ear into the silk purse. He said, you know — disparaging people who held office. He sought office and the Republican nomination for the Senate in Georgia. He got 23 or 24 percent of the vote against Johnny Isakson. So, it isn’t like — you know, he’s sort of turning his non-office holding into credentials.

I think any time you get on the stage, it’s good, and you are answering serious questions. And, you know, I think, in that sense, it’s helpful to the candidates who are up there.

It was a tough week, because, as I said, their narrative about President Obama was kind of pulled out from under them. Rick Santorum, of course, consistent, and persisted in his indictment of him.

But one test, Jim, that is a great test is how candidates handle something like this. And what I did was go through and look at how each of the Republican candidates, which one of them praised President Obama, while praising the SEALs and praising the action and the result.

Tim Pawlenty did, as you heard in Kwame’s piece. Mitt Romney did. And Mitch Daniels did. And Newt Gingrich didn’t, and Mrs. Palin didn’t. Gov. Palin didn’t. And, obviously, Rick Santorum didn’t. And the others didn’t.

But it’s just — it’s a rational thing to do. I mean, I know it’s difficult. And you are upset. And your base is going to be angry with you if you acknowledge that the person on the other side you are running against has done anything good. But I thought that was revealing.

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

What do you make of that?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. That’s actually a very good test, because of the people you mentioned who did, those are the serious candidates.

And I might throw in another. Jon Huntsman seems to be running. And I suspect he’s a serious candidate. I’m not sure what his odds are. But it’s going to be a — the good thing about this debate was, there were only five people up on the stage.

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

DAVID BROOKS: When the serious candidates come in, there’s going to be a lot. And they will be very inconclusive. And it will just be hard to have a good debate with so many of the people who are not going to get the nomination up there.

And, so, you know what? I — but I think we will known in 10 days. I have been talking…

JIM LEHRER: Ten days?

DAVID BROOKS: … to some of the candidates. And I think they have a feeling that, within 10 days, the people who are half-in, half-out have to say, yes, I’m in; yes, I’m out.

So, I think we will know very soon, and by the next president — the next debate next month, it will be a real debate.

JIM LEHRER: Do you think, as a result of last night, that — take Pawlenty and Santorum, just to pick two. Were they helped in a way that helps move them into the major candidate category with — if these others do — that you just mentioned do come along?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. Pawlenty — if you want to judge by buzz, Pawlenty is a major candidate. He is one of the top two. And there are a lot of people who think he’s the most likely.

And I sympathize with that, that all the other candidates have severe weaknesses. And, as a lot of other Republicans would say, he is the Dukakis of the race. When they’re all knocked out, he is the guy left standing. So, Pawlenty is clearly a serious candidate.

Santorum is clearly not. He has a social conservative base, but the guy got killed in Pennsylvania when he tried to run for re-election. And him expanding beyond that base is hard to see.

JIM LEHRER: Do you see anything happening as a result of last night that helps any of these folks sort of move up the…

MARK SHIELDS: I think — I think the exposure is good. And the question is what effect it had among people who did watch it.

I think — you know, the one, I think, drawback for Tim Pawlenty — and I agree with David’s assessment of him — is that, in that field last night, he should have been more dominant, I think, than he was, than he came across. I mean, he didn’t make any mistakes. He didn’t stumble, but you would have thought that he filled up the room a little bit more.

But, you know, Michael Dukakis didn’t fill up the room, and he won the nomination and…

DAVID BROOKS: There was one good moment I thought he had, where he was asked about cap and trade. He previously supported something like the…

MARK SHIELDS: Yes.

DAVID BROOKS: And he said: “I’m not going to mess around. I was wrong.”

JIM LEHRER: When he was governor of Minnesota.

DAVID BROOKS: Right.

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

DAVID BROOKS: “I was wrong.”

And that is an indictment of Mitt Romney, who is sort of dancing around his support for a health care that looks like what Obama did. And so that was his best moment, I would say.

JIM LEHRER: To admit mistakes is — is considered an act of courage in American politics; is it not?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I mean, when John Kennedy admitted responsibility — took responsibility for the Bay of Pigs, he went to 82 percent. And he said, two more foul-ups like this, and I will be at 95.

(LAUGHTER)

MARK SHIELDS: But, I mean, people do respect somebody who will accept responsibility. And that is a lesson very rarely learned by office-seekers.

JIM LEHRER: Because most of the people watching probably made a mistake or two of their own, so they understand that.

MARK SHIELDS: Sure — maybe that day.

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

DAVID BROOKS: But consultants — remember — if you remember, when President Bush had a debate, he was asked in one of these town hall debates, have you made a mistake? And he said, in public, no. And then the debate ended. Well, he didn’t say it quite that way, but more or less.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes.

DAVID BROOKS: And then, when the debate ended, he rushed over to the woman. And he said to her privately: “I want you to know of course I have made a lot of mistakes. I just — I’m not allowed to say that.”

JIM LEHRER: Not allowed to…

DAVID BROOKS: And so the rule is — the rule is, you are not allowed to. But I hope they all know they have made mistakes.

JIM LEHRER: OK.

Well, David, Mark, thank you both.

MARK SHIELDS: Having made mistakes.

JIM LEHRER: Having made mistakes.

(LAUGHTER)

JIM LEHRER: I don’t — did I? I didn’t say a thing.

(LAUGHTER)