TOPICS > Politics

Shields, Brooks on Trayvon Martin, Romney’s Repositioning, GOP Budget Plan

March 23, 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 political responses to the death of unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin, Rep. Paul Ryan's new budget proposal, Mitt Romney's changing stances on certain issues and some trouble spots for him in polling.

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. Good to have you here.

Trayvon Martin, Mark, of course, the Florida teenager shot to death by a neighborhood watch volunteer, allegedly, President Obama weighed in today, said, if he had a son, he would look like Trayvon Martin.

Are you surprised at how personal his comment was?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, the president’s not somebody given to personal remarks about himself or his family, and biographical, and it seemed appropriate in this case.

Rick Santorum also made a personal commentary, comment as well. There are two kinds of issues in American politics, Judy. There are position issues, should the defense budget be cut, should taxes be increased? You’re on one side. I’m on the other.

And there are valence issues. And this is a valence issue, where nobody is on the other side of Trayvon Martin. This is a terrible thing. The question is how convincing and sincere one is seen by the position that candidate or that politician, a public figure, takes.

And I think as of this point, everybody has been plausible, and I thought the president was quite convincing.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How careful do politicians have to be, David, about what they say at a time like this?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, the president has to be careful because he is in charge of the Justice Department, which is involved. And you saw him in a statement today talk about how he couldn’t really state a case.

And so he had to show some aggression, aggressiveness about confronting the events, while still not prejudicing anything. And I thought he did quite well by being personal. And this is a guy who has been accused sometimes of not being — of wanting to stay aloof from racial issues.

And so I thought it was particularly important in this case to show some personal connection. I thought he did that well. Santorum does not have the bounds of heading the Justice Department so he could be a little more aggressive, and I thought he did quite a job of highlighting the crucial point, which is, why was the local police so unaggressive in this case?

JUDY WOODRUFF: Does it become a political issue? Or does it stay in the — Justice?

DAVID BROOKS: I have trouble seeing it becoming a political — it may have to do with some of the laws on the books, especially in Florida, the self-defense laws, but that — right now, that’s all ahead of what we know.

We don’t know who was pursuing, who wasn’t pursuing. So a lot of the talk about stand your ground and all the other rules, we will see if he was standing his ground. It’s quite possible, as some of the tapes suggest, he was at least at some point pursuing, in which case self-defense really wouldn’t apply.

MARK SHIELDS: No, the police dispatcher, 911, instructed him not to chase, not to pursue the shooter. We do at least know that.

But, no, it won’t become a political issue unless and until it becomes a question of the police were on one side of this law when it passed the Florida legislature. They were opposed to it because they believe it is important that a professional, somebody who is trained in the use of force, in the use of firearms only be responsible for this.

And obviously, those who were in favor of the law — and supported by the National Rifle Association, I would point out — wanted a larger citizen involvement, even if that did run the risk of somebody packing heat.

DAVID BROOKS: That sort of is the crucial issue. Does the state have a monopoly on force?

Community watch, they’re wonderful organizations. They’re supposed to be eyes and ears and not trigger fingers. And they’re supposed to call in others, because when you have a gun — I read a study today, when you have a gun, you’re more likely to think somebody else has a gun. And so you’re more likely — whatever your racial or other attitudes are.

It’s a dangerous position. You want somebody with a lot training to have that responsibility and not some guy just sitting out there.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The presidential campaign, Mark, Illinois last Tuesday, Louisiana tomorrow, Wisconsin next week. Where does it stand on the Republican side?

MARK SHIELDS: The Republican Party is split. It’s what I would call the natural-born and the naturalized.

The natural-born Republicans, those who grew up in Republican households and went to good schools and have had successful careers, are probably more likely to support Mitt Romney. Those who probably grew up in — might have been Democratic households in many cases and have ideologically moved to the Republican Party, especially on social values and cultural values and religious values, and don’t have that same level of income are more likely to vote for Rick Santorum.

For that reason, Rick Santorum has to be the favorite in Louisiana. Romney would be the favorite in Delaware and Connecticut and New York going forward. Santorum would — I would bet on wonderful Virginia and Kentucky and Missouri. I mean, that — but it’s almost — that’s the cleavage within the two parties — the two groups within the party right now.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But, having said that, is it Mitt Romney’s to lose, or is it?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. I have always said it’s Mitt Romney’s to lose, and the margin that he’s not going to get it becomes smaller and smaller.

Illinois was a good win for him. There is this cleavage, and it will probably last. But there was this cleavage on the Democratic side four years ago. There was an upscale candidate, who was Barack Obama, and a downscale candidate, who was Hillary Clinton. It didn’t really hurt the party. They came together at the end.

I suspect that will happen. What is different is that Obama and Clinton over the course of the primary season, their approvals stayed the same or even went up a little. And Romney’s are like that. So that is the big difference.

MARK SHIELDS: His negative has doubled since he entered the race.


MARK SHIELDS: Romney’s. And his favorable has stayed the same, at 28 percent in the Wall Street Journal/NBC poll, and his negative has doubled.

That’s exactly — David is absolutely right. Four years ago at this time, when — a donnybrook between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, Barack Obama was 49-34 favorable.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And then you had this week a comment, David, of Romney’s aide, Eric Fehrnstrom, one of his top advisers, talking about Etch A Sketch.

There’s a lot of conversation about that, but is he right that Mitt Romney at the end of the primaries, once he — if he does cinch the nomination, can just shake it up and start all over again?

DAVID BROOKS: I hope so.

DAVID BROOKS: That’s what most candidates do.

It’s one of those gaffes where you tell the truth. I hope — he certainly needs to reset the campaign. And so I was very heartened to hear him say that, because it suggests they really will restart the campaign, reset it, get some new theme in — which is what they need to do.

The downside, obviously, is it plays into the key doubt people have about Romney, does he believe in anything? And there are certain images that get locked in people’s mind. For John Kerry, it was windsurfing. Once you give people what the literary critics call an objective correlative, an image, an actual image to symbolize doubts like the windsurfing or Michael Dukakis in the tank, if, for Mitt Romney, it’s Etch A Sketch, something that is easily erased, well, then gives people something concrete to hang their doubts on, and then it becomes sort of serious.

MARK SHIELDS: George Herbert Walker Bush, the president of the United States, in 1992 running for reelection, at a supermarket checkout counter asking what is the electronic scanner, confirming to a lot of people the sense that he didn’t understand what was going on in their lives at the time, which became a problem.

I agree with David. I think where I disagree is I don’t think Mitt Romney can change. You can’t flip-flop and then flip. I mean, he’s already flipped on issues as important. . .

JUDY WOODRUFF: You don’t think he can reposition himself?

MARK SHIELDS: He can’t reposition, because then you have really got a character problem. He can calibrate, but he cannot in any way — this is a man who has already switched on abortion. He’s already switched on gay rights. You know, he’s — what’s the third one?

I sound like Rick Perry.




MARK SHIELDS: Yes, that’s right, SPA.

And gun control. I mean, those are three on which he has already repositioned. So he can’t flip-flop and flip. I agree with David. The natural move is to go to the middle, and I just think he is where he is. He shouldn’t be talking about this stuff. He should be talking about the economy, that I’m a guy who can turn around businesses, I can turn around the country, I can turn around the economy. But he can’t go and revisit these.

JUDY WOODRUFF: David, you’re saying he has to.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. Well, he’s not going to turn back on gay marriage or anything, but he can switch to what is his authentic self, which is management. He’s a manager. He’s not a particularly ideological person. He’s sort of been pretending to be hyper-ideological.

But he can say, okay, I’m a manager, I’m a turnaround artist, go back to that. And that’s not portraying anything he stands for. That’s actually getting back to the authentic Romney.

JUDY WOODRUFF: One other thing I want to bring up from the Congress, and that is the budget plan proposed, Mark, this week by Chairman Paul Ryan. Where does that leave the budget fight? What do you make of what he put out there?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, the president introduced a budget that’s going nowhere. And it’s been accused of being unrealistic.

Paul Ryan has been introduced a budget which has been praised by those on the right as bold and decisive and clairvoyant and all sorts of other things. It’s science fiction. It’s going nowhere. But the problem of the Paul Ryan budget is, politically, it is an undertow for Mitt Romney. Mitt Romney is now seen as somebody who favors the rich over the middle class by 65 percent to 28 percent in the CBS-New York Times poll.

He’s seen as somebody who is out of touch with ordinary people. Here is a proposal that cuts the top rate for the wealthiest by 28.5 percent. Think of what kind of a tax cut it would be for Mitt Romney. I mean, just — he’s going to be answering that. This is — talk about the cuts, and my goodness, and they’re terrific.

All the cuts are visited about basically people who are means-tested, people of lower and ordinary and even less than ordinary income. And all the advantages go, in terms of the tax side of it, to the best-off. And I just think, politically, as a document, it is a disaster for Republicans, and particularly for Mitt Romney, given his biographical problems.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Is it that bad? Do you see. . .

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, I have my doubts about it, but not in that way.

I think one of the things it does — and the argument behind it, and I have debated Paul Ryan about this — is he thinks we’re headed — and I think he’s right about this — toward a fiscal catastrophe some time in the next few years, and you might not like the cuts that go in the Ryan budget, but it gets us toward fiscal survivability.

It doesn’t balance the budget. It increases spending 3 percent a year. It doesn’t shrink government. Government goes up by over $1 trillion in 10 years, but it gets us to avoid a fiscal catastrophe. And Ryan’s argument is, you may not like all this, but at least I’m getting us to fiscal survivability. The Democrats are not willing to propose a budget that gets us there. And, therefore, you have got to take us seriously.

And the political argument is we’re going to treat the American people like adults. And I’m not sure it’s going to work politically, but that’s their argument.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you’re saying it’s politically smart or not smart?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I think it’s politically very risky. People don’t like the idea of risks. They’d rather run huge deficits.

MARK SHIELDS: I think David is wrong.

There are focus groups that have been done on it in the last few nights. And people can’t believe that this is a semi-serious proposal by a serious political thinker. I mean, you’re talking about knocking two million kids out of Head Start in the next 10 years. You’re talking about knocking a million students out of Pell Grants that are needed for college tuition.

I mean these are major cuts. What Simpson-Bowles did was, it said it can in no way increase the poverty level in the country or the economic inequality in the country. That has to be — and it has to be both tax increase, as well as spending cuts. This is all spending cuts, and somehow we’re going to close tax loopholes, unspecified, unmentioned.

DAVID BROOKS: But, listen, if you want to reduce deficits — and I agree with Mark about that. If I was writing a budget, I wouldn’t have that stuff in there.

But you have to be serious. You have to make — either you’re going to have to raise taxes, and not just on the 2 percent. You got to raise taxes up and down.

MARK SHIELDS: I agree with. . .

DAVID BROOKS: And if nobody is going to talk about that, at least Ryan is getting us a step toward some sort of talk, giving people a sense of what kind of responses, whether it’s tax increases or spending cuts, we’re going to have to take.

I would spread it around differently, as Mark says, but at least he’s getting us a step forward.

MARK SHIELDS: What does Paul Ryan’s budget plan mean for Mitt Romney’s taxes in 2013?

JUDY WOODRUFF: We heard it here.

Gentlemen, we thank you both, Mark Shields, David Brooks.