TOPICS > Politics

Shields, Brooks on Syria Conundrum, Santorum’s Struggles, Civility

February 24, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks discuss the week's top political news including Secretary Clinton's harsh words on Syria, Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum sparring during a plethora of Republican debates and the analysts being honored for their civility week after week.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And to the analysis of Shields and Brooks. That is syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks.

Welcome, gentlemen.


JUDY WOODRUFF: So let’s start with Syria. We did have a discussion a few minutes ago, Jeff, with three people.

And, you know, more than 100 people, David, killed today again in Homs, 60 countries meeting to talk about what to do. Where do you see this headed in terms of the role of the United States?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I think there are two things that give a sign of where it’s headed. The first was the reaction of Hillary Clinton, which we saw and which you talked about.

The reaction was something I think we should be proud of, clearly a lot of passion, a lot of directness. I think that’s the way our secretaries of state should behave. And, second, you get a sense — and it’s sort of striking. We’ve been through Afghanistan. We have been through Iraq. It’s a country fatigued, feeling underdeveloped at home.

And yet, in the case of Libya, and I think also now in the case of Syria, there’s a sense of responsibility, the sense that you just can’t sit by. And this is part of the U.S., I think, eternal national character, but part of the global national character, as these countries do gather to figure out what to do.

There is a much greater sense that we have a feeling of responsibility for the internal atrocities committed in countries. So — and I think we’re going to be headed in that direction in some form or another.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Mark, is this a tough, tough, tough one for the United States?

MARK SHIELDS: Oh, I think it is.

And I just want to echo what David said about Secretary Clinton. What we saw was unrehearsed. It was impassioned. It was eloquent. It was really, I thought, quite moving. There was a — we search for authenticity all the time in our politics and public life. And I thought we saw it there.

And I’m not one that lionizes or idolizes or idealizes fellow journalists, but — but for the courageous efforts of so many there, as well as the technology, the citizens and what they have been able to accomplish. They’ve singed the world’s conscience. They have made it totally uncomfortable not to do something.

But I think there is a sense of fatigue, that we demand and insist that he stop, that — but at the same time, what is the action statement that we’re willing to do? And I think that’s the real dilemma. I mean, what – Gen. Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said he doesn’t know where the opposition is, who the opposition is within.

So it’s not simply doing something, but what to do and how to do it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: It’s a sense — it’s a real sense of frustration.


JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, we’ve got a lot of politics to talk about, too.


JUDY WOODRUFF: So I am going to take the liberty of moving on.

There was a debate after four weeks in the Republican contest, David. Where does that leave everything?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, it was our 20th. And, believe me, there will never be another campaign with 20 debates. I think there is a consensus with both parties it has been a bad thing for the Republican Party to have this many debates.

This final debate, judging from the polls, it wasn’t a complete game-changer, but there is no question Rick Santorum had a very bad week. He was on the defensive for various votes, various positions, various endorsements, Arlen Specter, moderate Republican-turned-Democrat.

And so he has been hurt. And I have to say I have a lot of sympathy for him on this score, because he’s a politician. He’s doing the craft of politics. And that involves sometimes voting for bills that you don’t particularly like, but your party needs you. It means endorsing people you don’t particularly like, but your party needs you. It means sometimes bringing home the bacon with some earmarks and things like that.

And so he did what I think of as normal things that, not only politicians, but people in the arena do. They make compromises. And so he’s being hit for it at the debate. And I think it is unfair. I think we ought to have some realistic expectations of what our people in public life are going to do.

And you can be a pundit and say you should be pure, but we shouldn’t expect that. And so I guess I have some sympathy, but it’s, no question, been a bad week for him.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But the crowd was pretty negative when he gave that sort of explanation about taking one for the team, Santorum.

MARK SHIELDS: No, you are right.

And I think that Romney did not do as well as the crowd in the room — the best job Romney did all night was stacking the room. It was totally partisan to Gov. Romney. He basically cleared his throat, and they applauded.


MARK SHIELDS: So — I agree with David. The Republicans ought to think about debates in these terms.

There wasn’t a single candidate in that stage the other night who was more impressive, more compelling, more commanding or more thoughtful than he was when this thing began. I mean, collectively, there was no progress.

You could watch both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama in 2008 become better and more intelligent and more informed public figures and public leaders. And I just thought all of them really were sort of diminished, have been diminished by this process.

Rick Santorum — every politician who runs for president yearns for that one moment, Judy, when the microphone and the spotlight comes to him. And you want to be ready for it when it does. And, for Rick Santorum, it came after his three victories in Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri.

And that was the moment for him to talk about his own story, his grandfather, the mines, his own commitment to blue-collar America. And he blew it. He went into a series of unforced errors. . .

JUDY WOODRUFF: You think it was that bad?

MARK SHIELDS: . . . series of unforced errors, talking about phony theology, talking about peripheral social issues, not say, this is who I am, this is what I believe, but getting into discussions of contraception.

I mean, abortion is a divisive issue in this country. Contraception is not. And that isn’t where he needed to be. So I just thought, in addition to that, he fell into Washington-speak, with, We didn’t have a quorum in the subcommittee. Therefore, the motion to table took precedence over the motion to recommit.

And you watch eyes glaze over when somebody does that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You agree that Santorum is having a really bad run right now?

DAVID BROOKS: Right. And I do, and I guess for those reasons. He’s always been a little didactic on the stump.

But he believes that. He believes — he thinks theologically. There are some odd things about Santorum. A., he thinks theologically. And very few Americans, even regular churchgoing. . .

JUDY WOODRUFF: And he got in trouble the other day for using that word.

DAVID BROOKS: Right, think theologically.

The second thing — and this always interests me about it — most of us when something bad happens, we sort of skirt by it and want to think about some positive thing. Santorum, through the whole course of his career, has always looked at the tragedy in the face and dwelt upon it.

And that is sort of an unusual personality trope, but I think it is a personality trope. It was most serious and most tragic for the death of his son Gabriel. But, also, in the campaigns, he dwells on the criticism, dwells on the negative, sometimes even international affairs, dwelling on the threats.

And so there is sort of a tragic sense about it. And sometimes that’s not great political sense for people who want uplift. And so he didn’t do uplift so well.

But the final thing I will say and just about the tenor of the debates, as Mark said, they are not better than they were. And I think that’s because it has become an identity marker. Are you with the team? And you have to stake out certain pure positions to show that you’re with the Republican team. And so it’s defeated thought and encouraged just, I’m totally pure.

And we saw that with the immigration issue, where they have to be purer than pure now, which I’m not sure any of them actually believe that position. But they think they have to be there just to show, I’m one of you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: A question about Romney, Mark. He rolled out his tax — business — corporate tax plan, reform plan, this week. Does that change the debate in any way? Is that something that voters are going to be looking seriously at?

MARK SHIELDS: Maybe some voters will be, Judy. I think we’ve seen this movie before.

The rollout is always about, we’re going to lower the rates and eliminate expenditures, broaden the base. We never get quite to that second part. It seems to be the functional equivalent to what waste, fraud and abuse used to be in balancing the budget. We don’t get into specifics.

And when the president did say we’re going to put a cap on charitable contributions for wealthy people, heaven and earth fell upon him for saying that. But, at the same time, that’s the only way we’re ever going to come to a debate about real tax reform, just the little initiatives and the crowd-pleasers. I think David is right.

I did want to say one thing in defense of Rick Santorum. And that was he admitted a mistake that he felt he made and all that.

And. . .

JUDY WOODRUFF: In No Child Left Behind.

MARK SHIELDS: No Child Left Behind. He said it was a mistake for him to cast that vote.

And it was an honest thing for him to say. And he paid an enormous price, not only in the room, but he was attacked for it. And we have gone through a campaign now where nobody else on the stage has acknowledged a single mistake, as we stare, stare in the face of the incredible success of the bailout of the United States auto companies.

And Mitt Romney has to prove that he’s not a flip-flopper, so he consistently clings to that position. It’s just — it’s kind of bizarre.

JUDY WOODRUFF: I guess Romney has not had an apology during this campaign.


In fact, it’s deteriorated. First, I don’t think it was a mistake voting for No Child Left Behind. It is not a perfect piece of legislation, but I think it’s moved us forward. Second, the Romney thing — and this goes back to what I was saying earlier about the deterioration of positions.

He wrote an op-ed for my newspaper in 2008, I think, on how to deal with Detroit. And it was quite a smart op-ed. It was about changing management, restructure some of the union things. And a lot of things — not everything, but a lot of the things were done by the Obama administration.

And so it was sort of a nuanced thing. He was sort of against it, but with some helpful suggestions.

JUDY WOODRUFF: That was the headline that he got a lot of attention for.

DAVID BROOKS: Right. The headline — well, it’s my colleagues, but the headline wasn’t quite fair to the piece maybe. But. . .


MARK SHIELDS: Detroit, drop dead.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, or must go bankrupt.

But he made the distinction between bankruptcy and managed bankruptcy and liquidation. And whatever you think of the position, it was a nuanced position.

In the campaign, instead of saying, I had a nuanced position, he now has to say, I’m purely against it to please the pure position. And so he’s — his strength, which is a subtle appreciation of how to run an economy, has been evaporated because he’s got to be pure and simple and crude. And that is sort of the deterioration of the whole race.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, yet, that auto bailout, you know, will have an effect on how people vote in Michigan.

MARK SHIELDS: It’s — Americans are pragmatic people. We are interested in results.

And Americans have concluded — the Pew Research did a survey on — they have gone from 3-2 thinking that the auto bailout was — the loans were a mistake and were unhealthy for the nation’s economy, now to 3-2 thinking they are. Twice as many Republicans think today that it’s worked as it didn’t.

And his — the one flaw in Mitt Romney’s argument in 2008 was, he wanted private funds to be available. To the best of my knowledge, we were dipping deeply into taxpayers’ pockets. . .


MARK SHIELDS: . . . in 2008 to fund — to provide the private funds those banks didn’t have.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So he — but in terms of the corporate tax, David, you didn’t get a chance to weigh in on that.

DAVID BROOKS: I’m sorry.

Yes, well, I actually think we’re moving in the right direction. So both — President Obama has a corporate tax plan that he announced this week — or Timothy Geithner did — which is similar. Lower the rates from 35 to 28 and close the loopholes.

And then the Romney plan, which does a similar — they are not complete plans, but we’re going to have to do tax reform probably in the early next year. And they set us up for that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, now, finally, before we go, point of personal privilege, we just want to take a moment to say that some congratulations are in order.

Mark and David were awarded the first ever Prize for Civility in Public Life from Allegheny College in Western Pennsylvania. As the college president, James Mullen, said in giving you the award — quote — “It is the hope of today that through this award and our college’s focus on civility, we might empower young people across the nation, that we might help them, help all of us find the faith and the courage to engage in the public arena with civility and respect.”

So, to both of you, Mark, congratulations, David, congratulations.

MARK SHIELDS: Well, thank you, Judy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What does this mean to you?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, it’s lovely. It means most of all we’re grateful to — I think I speak for David — to Allegheny College and President Mullen for their attempts to bring civility and to lower the toxicity level in American public life and dialogue.

But we are the beneficiaries of the standards laid down by Robert MacNeil and Jim Lehrer. I mean, we literally stand on the shoulders of giants. It was they who demanded and insisted upon a standard of civility in dialogue which permeates this whole show and has been the gold standard, in my judgment.

So I’m grateful, but I’m appreciative. We stand as proxies for them.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We stand on their shoulders as well. And they’re watching now, and we hope they’re hearing this.



I want to apologize for punching Mark at the end of the. . .


DAVID BROOKS: Unfortunately, I lost my temper and I. . .


DAVID BROOKS: No, I agree with Mark.

When you come on this show, there are certain expectations. And you — it is easy to fall into the expectations of civility and intelligence. And so it’s just a pleasure to be part of the show.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And maybe you will never come to blows on the NewsHour. Is that right?

MARK SHIELDS: I don’t know.

JUDY WOODRUFF: I mean, can we count on that not happening?

DAVID BROOKS: Keep that in the corridor.

MARK SHIELDS: If he pushes that corporate tax thing. . .


JUDY WOODRUFF: Mark Shields, David Brooks, thank you both.

MARK SHIELDS: Thank you, Judy.