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Shields and Gerson on Health Care Ruling, Contempt Vote

June 29, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson discuss the political impact of the Supreme Court ruling on the health care law and the House's vote to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: And to the analysis of Shields and Gerson, syndicated columnist Mark Shields and Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson, who is filling in for David Brooks.

Gentlemen, it’s good to you have with us.

MICHAEL GERSON: Great to be here.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, the health care ruling, Mark, what is your take on it?

MARK SHIELDS: My take on it, Judy, is I had been unaware of how dispirited, even demoralized Democrats had become, until that health care decision came down. There was a new spring in Democrats’ steps. There’s a — and a new lift to their spirits.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Really?

MARK SHIELDS: Yes, there really was. They needed a victory. They needed a win.

And they hadn’t had one for quite a while, whether it’s economic news or anything else. And I just — I mean, I just, everywhere I turned, every Democrat I ran into was exhilarated, it seemed, and just uplifted by what happened.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Unmitigated win for the Democrats, is that how you see it?

MICHAEL GERSON: Well, I think a Supreme Court victory for a president is better than a stick in the eye. And that’s the alternative here.

If it had been overturned, it would have been disastrous for him. This would have been his primary legislative achievement, you know, overturned. Avoiding a major loss, though, is not necessarily a major victory.

And I think that, right now, this is still a very unpopular bill. Its numbers have been stable, remarkably stable for really two years. I don’t think that this is going to change that. This is an inherently conflicted issue, where it’s hard for either side to gain much advantage, much immediate advantage.

Now you have a president that is going to defend a tax that he said wasn’t a tax. And you have an opponent, Romney, who is going to attack a mandate which is similar to the one he had in Massachusetts. That is an inherently prickly situation.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, you are saying it is difficult for both of them?

MICHAEL GERSON: I think it is.

But I would give — right now, you would have to say that health care, which inspired a lot of the Democratic loss in 2010, remains a fairly unpopular issue in America. The president’s message here is, let’s get beyond these old debates, not, let’s embrace my health care reform.

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I think there is — there is a case to be made, Judy, when we talk so much about the Constitution and constitutionality.

We do have three branches. We have got the executive and the legislative and the judiciary. And the — this law was passed by the Congress, it was signed by the president and affirmed by the Supreme Court. And I think that is regular order.

I think that — yes, I don’t argue with Michael that it has been unpopular. It consistently — about 40 percent in favor and 50 percent against. But I think the administration, quite frankly, walked away from it. I think they — it became an orphaned piece of legislation.

The argument wasn’t made. I thought Tuesday, when the decision came down, the president made the case better in the four or five minutes, the six minutes that he spoke about it than he had or anybody in the administration had since it passed.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You mean in his comments yesterday at the White House.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes.

Now, I think he has got a window here to make a case, not — let’s be very blunt about it. Mitt Romney was thrilled that health care became the centerpiece, not simply because he is vulnerable. I don’t mean that, but because it got off immigration, where for two weeks he has vacillated, hesitated, equivocated, and still has not come up with an answer on what he would do.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, you are saying it is good for Romney?

MARK SHIELDS: I think getting to — health care, getting immigration off — changing the subject was good for Romney.

MICHAEL GERSON: I do think it’s possible some voters may take a second look at this law, in the aftermath and look at the individual provisions and find them helpful. Some voters may get really angry the Supreme Court didn’t act, and give money to Mitt Romney, which seems to have happened in the last few days.

I think those effects are likely to be temporary and fairly marginal and probably buried by the jobs news we are going to get on January 6 — or — I’m sorry — on July 6.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So you don’t see this staying as a big issue through to November?

MICHAEL GERSON: This was a status quo decision. It wasn’t a major overturn.

And I don’t think it will change the status quo of the election all that much.

MARK SHIELDS: Just to be consistent, I have felt that the losing side would be energized by the decision.

And I think the energy will be with those who are against it, whether they’re Tea Party or the more conservative Republicans. I don’t think — I think there’s an inelastic base there . I don’t think it’s going to grow much. Those who are intensely against it, they will work. They will knock on doors. They will make telephone calls.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You mean the conservatives who are. . .

MARK SHIELDS: The conservatives.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Yes.

MARK SHIELDS: But I don’t think it is a growing constituency.

I think the more you discuss health care in this campaign, the better it is for the Democrats, quite honestly, whether it becomes a debate about Medicare. And Mitt Romney said — on Thursday, he said, what we have to do is, this law, whatever the law is has to cover those with preexisting conditions and that they will be guaranteed that they will have coverage.

Well, that — how is that going to happen? What is the formula? I mean, all of a sudden, you have to start answering questions how you would reach that lofty and I think admirable objective.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Do you agree, the more health care is a conversation, the more it helps the Democrats?

MICHAEL GERSON: Well, I don’t know. You look at what the president said, and he — let’s not re-litigate the past, OK?

So it is a message that, essentially, let’s live with the law. That’s very different from claiming great credit for a signature achievement. And there is a lot of down-ticket members of the Democratic Party that don’t want to talk about health care at all, particularly if you’re in a state that is a tight. . .

JUDY WOODRUFF: In fact, it is kind of — it is a different situation, isn’t it, for — if you are running for the House or the Senate?

MARK SHIELDS: It is. But if it becomes a debate about — I’m not just talking about the health care law. If it becomes a debate about Medicare, I think it works for the Democrats and against the Republicans.

And I think that virtually every Democrat, from the bluest of Blue Dogs to the most liberal of liberals, is happy to run on Medicare and defending, strengthening, reinforcing, supporting Medicare against those who would — have already voted, in fact, to change Medicare.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Does it put any more pressure, Michael, on Governor Romney to flesh out his own health care proposal, which Mark was just talking about?

MICHAEL GERSON: No, I think as you probably saw from the interchange here, that Romney wants to keep this at a very vague level of generality here. That’s probably his interest as a challenger. That is not unusual.

That’s usually the case. Your job is to make the critique and then talk about broad principles. And that’s generally what he has done.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Anything, Mark, to say — else to say about the court at this point, the fact that Roberts, the chief justice, surprised everybody and went over to the liberal side on this?

MARK SHIELDS: I think it is fair to say that yesterday the Supreme Court, instead of being the Justice Anthony Kennedy court, became the Chief Justice John Roberts court.

JUDY WOODRUFF: That he put his. . .

MARK SHIELDS: He put his stamp on it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: . . . imprimatur.

MICHAEL GERSON: Oh, I completely agree with that. The decision itself was a wonder. It balanced so many interests.

It was like juggling on a tightrope and he did it very successfully, really marked the emergence of Roberts as the key figure on the court. He both avoided a major political crisis, gave conservatives things they wanted by restricting the Commerce Clause as it applies in these cases, and established himself as the central thinker on the court. That’s quite an achievement.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And the court doesn’t go down as a court that is predictably one moves on party — divided along partisan lines.

MICHAEL GERSON: Yes, separation of powers is alive and well here. The court — the judges were not political machines that were just oriented towards outcomes. They were thinking independently, according to the law. That is pretty reassuring, actually.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, one other thing that happened yesterday that somewhat got overlooked, and that is, for the first time in history, Mark, the Congress, the House of Representatives voted to say that a member of the president’s Cabinet — to hold him in contempt. And that is of course the attorney general, Eric Holder, over this gun — so-called gun-walking operation, Fast and Furious.

What is the significance of that?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, it’s significant.

It’s historic. It is the first time it has ever happened, that a Cabinet officer has been held in contempt by Congress. And it was a — it was a — I think one can say not a well-thought-out act. It was rushed, quite frankly.

I mean, in the past, when there has ever been a vote, it has been months, usually three months, from the time there has been a committee hearing, a committee finding, to the Congress acting.

But I think this, Judy, is — we have got a convergence of factors. You have got, first of all, Darrell Issa, who is the chairman of the committee who. . .

JUDY WOODRUFF: Congressman.

MARK SHIELDS: Congressman of California, who announced early on that he was going to be, you know, the number one nemesis of the administration with hearings and exposure and all the rest of it.

He hadn’t fulfilled that promise, that pledge, but he got an opening here. This was a bad policy. It was a dumb policy. It resulted in personal tragedy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You mean on the part of the administration.

MARK SHIELDS: On the part of the administration and the part of the Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and terrorism.

But, at the same time, there was dissembling on the part of the Justice Department. I mean, he got his opening. Issa got his opening when they gave the wrong information, misinformation to the committee about the program itself, and then it was a full 10 months before it was corrected.

So, that was the opening he had. And that’s where we are right now.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So how big an embarrassment is this for the administration, for the attorney general?

MICHAEL GERSON: Well, I think it could have been far less if they had avoided that. They left the Congress under a false impression for nine or 10 months related to a real tragedy, a serious case, where there are still 2,000 guns that are out there loose and where life was lost.

I think also, though, that Republicans that I talked to on the Hill are just upset about the lack of accountability in this case. When something like this goes wrong, no one is really held responsible. You had Senator Cornyn, I think, on yesterday. But when I talked to him, he asked the rhetorical question, what does it take to get fired in Eric Holder’s Justice Department?

This was a very serious case. So I think that that has caused a number of members on the Hill that are not normally firebrands, not bomb-throwers, to be deeply concerned about this case, because the Justice Department left a wrong impression, has not — has used executive privilege in a way not to protect the highest levels of communication between the president and his staff, but to cover the embarrassment of mid-level Justice Department political appointees.

That is actually a pretty novel use of executive privilege. And I think it is resented on the Hill.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Does it go anywhere from here, though?

MARK SHIELDS: I think just one other point I would quickly add, and that is, I don’t think there is any question that there is a personal animosity toward Eric Holder on the part of many Republicans.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Why is that?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I think, in part, it’s political.

I mean, make no mistake about it that there has been a systematic effort to limit, through voter I.D. laws, the turnout. I mean, when the Republican House majority leader in Pennsylvania announces, Governor Romney will carry Pennsylvania because of the state voter I.D. law we just passed here in Pennsylvania, which will knock basically Democrats from voting, even though there is no voter fraud alleged, approved, then — and Eric Holder has been the adversary and the nemesis on that.

That doesn’t in any way change the facts of what has happened on the gun fiasco.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But you are saying it fits into a larger. . .

MARK SHIELDS: I think it fits into a larger Republican objective.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Do you see that kind of a vendetta. . .

MICHAEL GERSON: Well, the larger narrative here is that very few people on the Hill would accuse this current Justice Department of being particularly competent.

They went after CIA agents unnecessarily. They tried to try Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in New York, which was a total disaster, and now Fast and Furious. This is serial incompetence. So that is also part of the context here. And I think that there is just less tolerance for this on the Hill because of a long, cumulative record here.

MARK SHIELDS: It showed a rather remarkable level of tolerance for the predecessor in the last administration.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And nobody is here to speak up for the Justice Department.

(LAUGHTER)

MARK SHIELDS: Well, no, I mean, I will speak up for the Justice Departments and the career people there and what they have done.

But I don’t think you can ask that Fast — argue that Fast and Furious was a success. The only defense seems to be it was originated under the Bush administration. And that is not enough. I’m sorry. That just isn’t validation or vindication.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Viewpoint heard. Viewpoint heard.

Mark Shields, Michael Gerson, thank you both.