TOPICS > Politics

Shields, Brooks on Romney’s ‘Silver Earplugs,’ Catholic Anger at Obama

February 3, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
Columnists Mark Shields and David Brooks discuss the week's top political news, including GOP hopeful Mitt Romney's attempt to recover from his poverty gaffe, the latest unemployment report and anger among Catholics over the Obama administration requiring social service providers to include contraceptives in health coverage.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight: the analysis of Shields and Brooks. That is syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks.

So, jobs numbers.

Mark, unemployment rate is down, the best numbers, I guess, that they have seen since this president took office.

MARK SHIELDS: That’s right, Judy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What does it all mean for the presidential campaign?

MARK SHIELDS: It’s encouraging. It’s good news. It’s upbeat for the country, first of all, but certainly for the Obama administration.

I think that you have seen this sort of increasing better-than-expected jobs numbers now the second month in a row. And I think it’s reflected in the president’s support. You can see his own numbers improving.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What do you say?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. I mean, that’s — yes. People feel better about the country.

There was a sense, I think, a couple months ago things were spiraling down. And that sense has not totally gone away, but feel better about the country, feel better about the way things are going. And one of the good pieces of news is not because we have some massive stimulus going out there to pump things up.

It is the business cycle. And so the business cycle is ticking upwards. And as all the economists say, that doesn’t mean it is going to continue. The CBO came out this week, the Congressional Budget Office, with a projection that next year or the rest of the year is going to be down.

And then looming out there always is Europe. When you talk to people who are following the European situation full-time, a lot of anxiety there. So we have had a false dawn before. This could be another one. On the other hand, this could be the slow, gradual climb out of what we have been through.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How much does it matter, Mark, how the Republican nominee candidates still handle this?

I mean, today, they were pretty much universally saying, well, the president should be doing better, should have done more.

MARK SHIELDS: They were. You almost wanted to say, cheer up, fellows. Eventually, things will get worse.

MARK SHIELDS: I mean, they were clearly sort of discouraged or upset that there was good news.

I mean, there are still, Judy, 5.6 million fewer jobs today than there were when the great recession began in December 2007. And so we have got a long way to go. But this is good news. It’s encouraging. And it means that the Republicans have to come up with something other than: We’re the other guys.

I mean, they have to come up with some vision. And whatever Mitt Romney’s strengths have been, vision has not been one of them up until now.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, I just completely want to underscore that.

First, on the policy sense, it lessens the need probably for a little more stimulus. It increases the need for long-term unemployment policies, because that issue is still very strong.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Which is something that Congress is dealing with right now.

DAVID BROOKS: Right. And so we still have this huge number of long-term unemployed.

But the idea that Mitt Romney, assuming he is the nominee, can coast to the presidency on bad economy while just uttering banalities about how much he loves America, that’s probably not to going happen now. If the economy continues to tick up, he can’t just ride the economy. He has to be much more philosophical, much more substantive about how he differs with the president.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So how much of this is the president just simply at the mercy, David, of these numbers that come out the first week of every month, and how much of it is how he talks about it?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, we cover campaigns, and they all say, I created this job, I created that job.

The extent to which a president is responsible for the economy under his watch — we should emphasize this. It will help him politically, but it’s completely bogus. Presidents do not control the economy under their watch. They can have a marginal impact in extraordinary circumstances. But it has to do with a lot more complicated things then they are responsible for.

And that is true with Obama. That’s true with Bush. It’s true probably with Herbert Hoover, that presidents do not correlate in the short term with economic quarterly-by-quarterly performance.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So he just has to wake up the first Friday of every month and hope that the numbers…

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I think the president did take dramatic, bold, controversial steps. And I think he can make the case that he — what he did is working, that there were major policy changes that were at the outset of his administration.

Right now, there are very few arrows left in his quiver of what he can do. And so, in that sense — and I think — just to underscore what David said about Europe and what we had in the previous discussion with Ray, I mean, Iran…

JUDY WOODRUFF: About Iran.

MARK SHIELDS: Iran is the wild card. I mean, if we’re talking about the Strait of Hormuz being closed or something of that sort, that is a game-changer politically.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, let’s keep it here at home a few more minutes, David.

And that is the Mitt Romney comments this week, where he said I’m not concerned about the very poor. And he went on to talk about they have got a safety net. At first, he said, this is taken out of context. And then, yesterday, as we heard from Jon Ralston, he said, I misspoke.

What do we know more about Mitt Romney from this episode?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, first, that he is following the strategy that every candidate since maybe Bill Clinton — or maybe before, with the exception of George W. Bush — has followed, which is just pay attention to the middle class.

And they all focus on the middle class. And as a result — with, again, the potential exception of George W. Bush — we have had no national candidate talk about poverty for a long, long time, maybe decades.

The second thing we learned about…

JUDY WOODRUFF: Including the president?

DAVID BROOKS: Including the current president.

And so the second thing we learned is, I understand what he is trying to say. But to have the words “I do not care about the poor” come out of your mouth say that you are responding to reality in an abstract, dehumanized way, the way a consultant would, not as a human being would.

People who are in touch or see the electorate as human beings, those words would not come out of your mouth. And so to that extent, I do think it touches a genuine problem for Romney, which is he sometimes sees things in a much more distanced, emotionally distanced way. And, as a result, people think, I’m not sure he gets what I am going through.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Does this connect, Mark, to the other comments that have been highlighted, the $10,000 bet, the…

MARK SHIELDS: I’m unemployed, too.

JUDY WOODRUFF: I’m unemployed.

MARK SHIELDS: Right, and I was afraid of a pink slip.

It does, Judy. What you have to be worried about is that a perception, a negative perception can start to set in that becomes a caricature. Take the case, for example, of President Gerald Ford, perhaps the best athlete ever to sit in the White House, a University of Michigan football player, drafted by the NFL.

But he slipped coming down the stairs and he drove a golf ball into a crowd, and, all of a sudden, he was a klutz, and Chevy Chase had a career. And that became the perception.

Mitt Romney is now coming across as a guy who was born in a log cabin in Grosse Pointe, Michigan, with silver earplugs. I mean, he doesn’t hear. I mean, it really is setting in. And I think Republicans you talk to are getting nervous that perhaps this guy just doesn’t haven’t the touch. I mean, it’s not a silver spoon. It is silver earplugs.

I mean, he really is tone-deaf.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So — but he’s now saying, I misspoke.

Can he put this behind him and…

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I mean, to be blunt about it, whatever else he says about the safety net, very little of his campaign has been devoted to extending, repairing and strengthening the safety net.

I mean, that has not been a priority of the Republican platform or of Mitt Romney’s agenda, I mean, so that was kind of a silly statement to make in passing, even as he tried to — I mean, the middle class has become the Holy Grail of American politics.

I mean, whatever you do for the middle class of these, you do for me. I think Scripture is going to be rewritten. I mean, it’s really — you know, it becomes shameless on the part of Democrats and Republicans. And that’s what he was trying to do, ineptly though he did it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Do you think we are going to hear more focus on the poor, the very poor?

DAVID BROOKS: I hope. He can have a policy. Maybe this is a — would be a good antidote — I don’t expect him to do this — but say, OK, here is my poverty agenda. We believe in equal opportunity, but providing equal opportunity, the government just can’t hang back when you have got all these disorganized neighborhoods. You have actually got to do some stuff, and I’m going to help charities, I’m going to do this.

And so he — it would behoove him to have a policy agenda toward poverty.

MARK SHIELDS: We have a greater number and percentage of people very poor today than we have had in a generation.

There are 20 million Americans living in households less than one-half of the poverty rate established by government. So that would be an income for family of four of about $11,000 a year. So it is a real problem.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, final thing I want to ask you: two developments this week around social — sensitive social issues. One was the Susan Komen Foundation changing course on money for Planned Parenthood. And the other one had to do with something that came out of the health — health agency this week.

But let me ask you about the second first. Kathleen Sebelius, Secretary of Health for the Obama administration, announced that social service providers have to include contraceptives in their health coverage, whatever a group’s religious or ethical views are.

Mark, what is the fallout from this?

MARK SHIELDS: The fallout is cataclysmic for the White House and for the president.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Really?

MARK SHIELDS: Yes, cataclysmic. I’m not talking about — and I say this as a Catholic. I’m not talking about Catholics who attend mass every Sunday.

Catholics who attend mass here regularly take great pride in the social mission of Catholic Church to provide the — to feed the hungry, to provide shelter for those who are homeless, to take care of those who are lonely, and the immigrant.

And there is a great sense of pride that this is the mission of Catholic Church. It’s part of the definition of the Catholic Church. And what President Obama has done with this policy, and Secretary Sebelius, quite bluntly, is they have taken those Catholics who took a risk to support them, Father John Jenkins, the president of Notre Dame, and Sister Carol Keehan, who is the president of the Catholic Health Association, and Father Larry Snyder, who is president of Catholic Charities, who have taken on orthodox, more conservative groups within their own Catholic Church to support the president, especially his efforts on the poor, and he has left them out to dry.

I mean, he really has, with — in just a policy that I think is, quite frankly, indefensible.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So what are the implications?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. I agree. I think that it is enormous. I think it was the most under-reported story of many months, because you have Catholics who are upset. You have evangelicals who are really upset.

And whatever problem they had with Mitt Romney, that has now healed. They have now united with Mitt Romney because they are so upset about this story. And a lot of people think we are a diverse country, we have a lot of different values, that government should get involved — it gives money to a lot of these associations — but it should give different people with different values the ability to operate in a way they see fit.

When you have the government saying one size fits all, sort of a form of bureaucratic greed, you are going to do it our way, or not, well, then that insults a lot of people. And so I think this is having resonance across the country. It was — statements were issued in a lot of masses, a lot of pulpits this past Sunday. And, you know, I think it’s going to have a significant lingering effect for a long time.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Why did the administration do it, then, Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: I honestly don’t know. I think there was a tone-deafness. I think maybe the Mitt Romney thing is contagious.

I mean, there just really was. This was after the president in private conversations and in public speeches at the commencement address at Notre Dame had said, we’re going to work out a compromise. We will work this out. We will have a solution that respects the conscience.

The conscience clause is deep in our tradition. It’s Quakers at time of war. It’s Seventh-day Adventist not being forced to work on the Sabbath. It’s Orthodox Jews being given kosher food. You know, it just really, to me — I don’t know. You can make a political calculation, but I honestly don’t know why they did it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Do you have a sense of why?

DAVID BROOKS: No, and it is a great mystery.

I hear conspiracy theories. Who switched the president’s mind? Who would have the power to change his mind after he had made these vows? I don’t know. I really think they should come out and address it a little more, because not getting some of the front -page covers that I think it deserves. But it is out there.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But you are hearing that they may reverse?

DAVID BROOKS: No, no, no, I don’t mean to say that. I mean to say that there is a lot of popular upset about this, and within the administration, by the way, there is some upset about this.

MARK SHIELDS: Judy, I mean, places like Scranton, Penn., Cincinnati, Ohio, the I-4 Corridor, Catholics in those — I mean, Barack Obama carried Catholics with 54 percent in 2008.

I’m just saying that this appears to be distancing, if not dissing Catholics.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We hear you both.

Mark Shields, David Brooks, thank you.

DAVID BROOKS: Thank you.