TOPICS > Politics

Shields and Brooks on Gingrich’s Chances, Obama ‘Spanking’ Israel, Arab Leaders

May 20, 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 the developing GOP 2012 presidential field, President Obama's Middle East and Arab world policy address and call for Israel to return to 1967 border lines, plus the president's praise for the CIA.

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

First, Mark, what is there to say about Newt Gingrich after this week?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, Jim, if you are a Republican interested in electing other Republicans to office, the downside of a Newt Gingrich national campaign has always been greater than the upside of one, Because of Newt’s proclivity, his habit, his inclination, his irresistible tendency to always speak in sort of bombastic, superlative, exaggerated words that — and exclamation points.

It’s — and that’s it. I mean, there’s a — he wants to draw the starkest extremes he can between his position and those on the other side. And that’s what he did. He went on to a show, “Meet the Press.” This wasn’t an on-the-run, 250-watt interview, radio station from Fargo, you know, just getting you between planes.

You go on “Meet the Press,” you sit down beforehand. You go rehearse your answers. You anticipate what they’re going to ask. You know what they have done. And he went on there and basically just savaged what every Republican in the House had voted for, except four, the Paul Ryan plan.

JIM LEHRER: Right. Yes.

MARK SHIELDS: And then — then, he — it was classic Newt. He said, any ad quoting what I said on “Meet the Press” is a falsehood.

Now, I mean, this is a YouTube world. I mean, it’s there for everybody to see. And it’s going to come back next year, whoever the nominee is. So — and it probably almost certainly won’t be Newt Gingrich.

JIM LEHRER: Now, do you agree? I mean, is he damaged beyond repair?

DAVID BROOKS: I have always thought he was damaged. I think I mentioned…

JIM LEHRER: Sure, before.

DAVID BROOKS: … that he — I wouldn’t trust him to run a 7-Eleven.

And there’s sort of the reason. Somebody made the point, you have to — always have to use the Newt Gingrich translator for everything he says. So, when he says something is world historical, that means it is sort of moderately important. When he say it is fundamental, that means it is tangential.

So, you got to — the bombast meter always has to be ratcheted down six levels. And — but — so, this was just bombastic out of control. But there was a serious element. He is not the only one in the Republican Party who is worried about what Paul Ryan stands for.


DAVID BROOKS: And I happen to think…

JIM LEHRER: You mean the Medicare thing.

DAVID BROOKS: The Medicare thing. And he has been involved in Medicare in the past when he was speaker.


DAVID BROOKS: And I happen to think one of the important things Ryan did was, he said, if we’re going to be serious, we have to be serious about entitlements. We can’t just be for expanding Medicare coverage forever.

But there are people in the party on talk radio and also people like Gingrich who have said, we should never, never touch this.


DAVID BROOKS: And so he was speaking to something serious. He did it in the most damaging way to his party possible.

JIM LEHRER: Now, Tim Pawlenty is coming. It’s almost definite that he is coming in the next few days. What is your reading on him right now?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, I think it’s — he’s — I think there are really three plausible candidates, Romney, Pawlenty, and Daniels, if he gets in.

And I can easily see a path to the nomination for Pawlenty, because he is the one person without any strong negatives. And he is fine. He was a good governor. He speaks well. He’s fine.

And so various people compare him to the Dukakis of the race. He comes from a working-class background, which that will play well. He’s a good guy. So, he doesn’t — so far, he hasn’t aroused any excitement. And, so far, he hasn’t really defined himself as more than just a generic Republican.

But that might be fine. That might be good enough. So, he is a very serious player worth paying a lot of attention to.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree?

MARK SHIELDS: I think anybody who is a governor and been reelected as a governor, especially in a state that’s — politics have been dominated by the other party, has to — is a plausible candidate.

But, Jim, running for president, you’re running — you’re — it’s a far higher altitude than any of these people have ever flown at before. It’s a lot tougher than running for governor, the scrutiny that attaches. You are 50,000 feet up in the air and everybody sees everything you do, and especially now, in our YouTube world. So, you know, we will find out with Tim Pawlenty.

One wild card for him is, with Mike Huckabee not running, I think it encourages Michele Bachmann to run, the congresswoman from Minnesota, as well…

JIM LEHRER: Same state, yes.

MARK SHIELDS: … and who has a built-in — there’s a built-in constituency in Iowa for either her or Sarah Palin among social and cultural conservatives and religious conservatives, who are very influential in the Republican nominating process.

And Tim Pawlenty has to do well in Iowa.

JIM LEHRER: Because of the Iowa caucuses.

MARK SHIELDS: Iowa caucus. He has to do well there. And if one of them takes the oxygen out of the room, it could — his campaign could suffer a real blow right at the beginning.

JIM LEHRER: What about Huntsman? Any reading on him? Is it too early?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. Well, he is — he’s — we have talked about his core problem, that he worked for Barack Obama.


DAVID BROOKS: He is the more moderate…

JIM LEHRER: But he has said he kind of takes that — he doesn’t see it that way.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. Well, he doesn’t, but I guarantee you a lot of Republican primary voters are going to see it, especially when Barack Obama embraces him at every — rhetorically at every opportunity.

He’s by far the most moderate in the party. He was — before he took this job with Obama as the China ambassador, he was seen as the moderate hope in the party. And so he — he — if there is a moderate wing left, and people decide — Michele Bachmann wins Iowa, everybody goes, oh, my gosh, let’s get somebody who seems reasonable, he would have a shot.

I think it’s an outside shot because of the Obama problem.

JIM LEHRER: OK. Speaking of…

MARK SHIELDS: Could I just say one thing on Mike Huckabee?


MARK SHIELDS: Because you asked — you asked last week about Mike Huckabee.

JIM LEHRER: Yes, I did.

MARK SHIELDS: And I said I didn’t know whether he was going to run.


MARK SHIELDS: I should have known because Mike Huckabee — Mike Huckabee…

JIM LEHRER: Yes, you…

MARK SHIELDS: … Mike Huckabee had gained 25 pounds since 2008. And if you are going to run for national office, you get a personal trainer, and you lose that 20.

JIM LEHRER: I thought you were a trained observer.

MARK SHIELDS: And he — I know. It hit me when I saw him last Saturday night announce that. I said Mike, you have been in the refrigerator. And Haley Barbour had not.

JIM LEHRER: He was too large on the screen when he made…

MARK SHIELDS: Yes, that’s it. No, exactly.

DAVID BROOKS: Newt Gingrich now suing his personal trainer.


MARK SHIELDS: That’s right.

JIM LEHRER: But you just ruined my segue.

MARK SHIELDS: I’m — I’m sorry.

JIM LEHRER: I was about to say, David, speaking of President Obama, what did you make of his speech and what happened today with Netanyahu and the Middle East?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, I thought the speech, the parts that concerned the Arab Spring were very good, very strong, put us on the right side.

I was less impressed with the parts concerning Israel, and for this reason. It is obviously true in the abstract that the final settlement will have to involve the ’67 borders with land swaps. So to that degree, when the president — what the president said was blindingly obvious.

But we’re not talking about this situation in the abstract. We’re talking about it in a concrete historical circumstance. And in that circumstance, Israel has just withdrawn from Gaza, took away settlements, and it didn’t lead to peace. It led to more violence and threats. The same thing happened in Lebanon.

So, the people in Israel are nervous about just giving away land right now, until they’re sure they have a partner. Meanwhile, on the Palestinian side, you have got this Hamas-P.A. alliance, which is a problem, to say the least.

So, to me, this a very unlikely moment for there to be Middle East peace. And for the president to pick this fight in this particular circumstance, seems to me, not a worthy thing to do.

JIM LEHRER: Well, you don’t think — you don’t agree with Jane Harman and Steve Hadley that — that something could come from this, because…

DAVID BROOKS: I’m an outlier on this. I have been covering — I go there every year. And every year, they have got another plan on the table, the Allon plan, the Mitchell plan, the Quartet plan, the Oslo process.

And, to my mind — and, again, I’m an outlier on this — I think the idea we’re going to draw magic maps — magic lines on a map and solve this thing is not real. I don’t think it’s about territory. I think they have competing narratives, they have competing moral systems, competing historical hurts. And unless you deal with those underlying cultural and social problems, I don’t think some magic line on a map is going to do it.

JIM LEHRER: Well, you were personal. I will be personal. I have personally negotiated peace in the Middle East about 40 times on this program…


JIM LEHRER: So, I don’t know what are you talking about.

What do you — what was your reading of what was going on?

MARK SHIELDS: As someone who has been critical of the president, I thought it was a — I thought it was the right speech to make.

JIM LEHRER: Said the right things?

MARK SHIELDS: I agree with Jane Harman. I thought that, in the cusp, or perhaps even in the middle of what the 2012 campaign is going to be, it was a bold statement to make and a realistic statement.

The reality is that Israel is in danger of being isolated and the United States along with it. And I think this is a dangerous, dangerous time for Israel internationally. I think the president is going to Europe. He had to have — he was really forced to make a statement by Prime Minister Netanyahu coming here, and with this invitation from Speaker Boehner to speak to the Congress. That was going to dominate the discussion, that the — that we’re going to have elections in Egypt.

And we want to preserve and strengthen the peace relations between Israel and Egypt and — and with Jordan. And I just — I just think it was — that we have to move forward on this. We have to change. And I think that’s really important. And I think it was an important message for him to deliver.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. I mean, I was in Israel yesterday — I mean — not Israel — in Europe yesterday when the speech was made, and the reaction in Europe was, finally an American president spanking Israel, finally an American president saying Israel is the problem, is the obstacle to peace.

And when the Israelis feel that from the European community, when they feel that from the Arab world, that interpretation, believe me, it’s not an inducement to peace. Reminding people how weak they are and how history is running against them is not an inducement to a country to take risks.

And so, I just don’t think the circumstances are particularly right, until we have a Palestinian Authority which is going to acknowledge the Jewish state of Israel, until there is some sense of security on the Israeli side.

I understand why, if you want to sort of — Obama did sort of spank a lot of the Arab leaders. And I understand why, for the sake of balance, you want to, you know, make them feel better.

JIM LEHRER: Particularly Assad.



DAVID BROOKS: And, so, I understand the sort of geostrategic — I just — I personally don’t think we’re — it’s a right moment for peace.

JIM LEHRER: Finally, quickly, President Obama went to thank the CIA today.

What is your reading? Does the CIA come out of its difficult times now? Is it doing better with — in terms of image, and deservedly so?


Morale at the CIA has been low, really, for — since the ’70s. And they have been criticized a lot, whether it’s questionable interrogation or whatever else. They have seemed to take a lot of hits.

I give Leon Panetta a lot of credit for raising the morale there, for going in with just one staff person, and saying, you are the professionals. I want to work with you. I depend on you.

And this is a great success. And they — celebrating success of any agency, it’s good for any agency.

JIM LEHRER: Everybody.

MARK SHIELDS: It’s good for the country. And it’s sort of — it’s the CIA emerging from the shadows. It’s becoming a more active player. Especially as we draw down from Iraq and start to draw down from Afghanistan, the role of the CIA is going to be even more…

DAVID BROOKS: See, I will make a general point.

Republicans and Democrats, when you ask the political appointees, what is the quality of the professional staff in your agency, whether they are Republicans or Democrats, they almost invariably say, surprisingly high, considering the salaries and everything they get, which are not so high.

But the people who are in government, they are surprisingly good at it. And the CIA has its problems. I still have my problems with the way they do analysis. But to go — for a president to go to an agency and celebrate career people who are not making a lot of money, probably always worth doing, whatever the agency.

JIM LEHRER: Thank you.

MARK SHIELDS: Thank you.