TOPICS > Politics

Shields, Brooks on Bin Laden Politics, Chen Guangcheng, Jobs Report

May 4, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks discuss the week's top news including the political debates surrounding the anniversary of Osama bin Laden's death, U.S. and China relations amid the saga of blind dissident Chen Guangcheng, new jobs numbers and structural problems in the U.S. economy.

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

Gentlemen, welcome.

So we have just been hearing the bin Laden story, the interview with Peter Bergen that Margaret did. This was the anniversary this week of his killing. The White House, the president observed it by going to Afghanistan.

And then his campaign, David, ran an ad pointing to the president’s decision to go take out bin Laden. What do you make of the White House handling and the campaign handling of this?

DAVID BROOKS: I thought they went a little far, and then they did Brian Williams/NBC interview in the Situation Room.

I think he deserves credit. First of all, it was a serious accomplishment. And as Peter Bergen gives you the impression, the intelligence community was ambivalent. And it strikes me that it was actually — the intelligence community was a lot more confident there were WMDs in Iraq than about this.

And so the president has to operate in this zone of incredible uncertainty. And he made the right call. And I thought it was perfectly fine to brag about that. I think it’s perfectly fine to jump around in the end zone and say hey, I did it. You are running for president. Maybe they go a little over the top sometimes.

What I didn’t think was good was when the campaign ran this ad where they had Bill Clinton very effectively talking about the decision he took, but then they jam in this negative ad using a quote from Mitt Romney from five years ago taken out of context, which he has amplified many times to explain what he was thinking. They take it out of context in an attempt to get a jab.

And that’s just the normal gangland campaign thinking, taking what is a good moment and then cheapening it with a stupid and cynical political jab. So that, I would fault them on.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How do you size up the way they handled it, the White House and the campaign?

MARK SHIELDS: I thought the president was totally appropriate. I thought it was a substantive agreement that had with President Karzai, obviously that President Karzai wanted, that the United States wanted. The war is unpopular, remains unpopular.

But I thought the president handled it well. It was a substantive trip. I didn’t see any end zone dance. I didn’t see any spiking the football, whatever jargon they wanted to use. I thought it was totally appropriate. I mean, are we totally amnesiac in this city? Is it only eight years ago that Top Gun landed on the USS Abraham Lincoln, George W. Bush came out, at perfect sunlight, you will recall, as the White House referred to it, magic light, at that magic moment with a mission accomplished sign, some 6,000 deaths earlier — before Iraq and Afghanistan took that many American lives?

And that was the sort of a magic moment. I thought that was spiking the football. Silliest statement of the week was Mitt Romney’s statement that anybody would have done it. We learned — heard from Peter Bergen in his interview with Margaret. David has corroborated it. Anybody who has even reported on this remotely knows that there was a great division inside.

When Bob Gates, who served for six presidents, said, this was one of the gutsiest decisions I’ve ever even seen a president make, you know that it was a tough call. And for Mitt Romney said Jimmy Carter would have done it, Jimmy Carter made as tough a call as any president’s ever made with his attempt, failed tragically, the deaths of eight American brave warriors, to rescue U.S. hostages in the — held by the Iranians in the U.S. Embassy.

I would add, I do think it was — the ad was a cheap shot on Romney.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The spot that the campaign. . .

MARK SHIELDS: Yes, it was.

I mean, you have got a positive — that is the kind of thing you bring up in a debate. I mean, if Romney then, in the course of a debate says, you know, anybody would have done it, this and that, then you turn and you say, then why did you say this, and let him explain it.

But it took — this was an affirmative, positive achievement of Barack Obama. Why make it petty and smaller by taking a cheap shot at Romney?

JUDY WOODRUFF: What about the “anybody would have done it” piece of this?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, I agree with that.

I think it’s impossible to know until you are there. You know, you can prepare — and I don’t care what you have done in business or what you have done previously in life. As I say, government is operating under uncertainty. There is — not to get pretentious about this, there is a great Tolstoy scene where one of the generals sends his men into the fog of a valley. He has no idea where he is sending them.

You have got to make these calls all the time in government. And so the president, when you had all the uncertainty surrounding him, he made the call. And it was an aggressive call. And so he deserves credit for that. And it’s just impossible to know how he would have done it, when he was campaigning, how Mitt Romney would have done it. He doesn’t — Mitt Romney doesn’t how he would make that call.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, the other big international story this week of course is China, the dissident Chen Guangcheng. Now, it looks, Mark, as if he is going to be allowed to leave China. But there’s been a lot of discussion back and forth.

Mitt Romney a couple of days ago said — criticized the Obama administration for what it was doing with regard to human rights. How do you size up how it’s been handled by the White House? You have got Secretary Clinton over there, Secretary Geithner.


Judy, unlike Mitt Romney, I will say I don’t know completely. From what I do know, Mitt Romney spoke saying, from reports, which was his sort of his disclaimer, and then took a cheap political shot. It was — he would have been far better served, I think his candidacy would have been far better served if he said that this stops at water’s edge. We’re rotting for this. We want a resolution. We want the safe removal and the safety of his family.

But he didn’t do that. I would say right now it looks like a fairly mature, sensible, rational resolution of what had been for the Chinese an obviously humiliating experience, the division, the fault lines between the security people, their foreign service people, between the federal and central authorities and the local authorities. And the real tensions there were exposed.


MARK SHIELDS: Chinese — were raw.

And I do — I think credit has to go to Gary Locke, to the people at the embassy. . .

JUDY WOODRUFF: Ambassador, U.S. ambassador.

MARK SHIELDS: . . . U.S. ambassador, China, to Secretary Clinton, and to the Chinese people involved, the Chinese folks involved, if, in fact, this is the answer that it looks to be right now.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But at the time, David — or not but — at the time that Mr. Chen was released from the embassy, there was some question about whether that was the right thing to do.

DAVID BROOKS: Yeah. There was clearly — there was certainly a fumble in the middle there, letting him out and maybe not being able to get him back.

And so that was clearly a fumble. But I do think it’s in the context of really six or seven years from the Bush administration and the Obama administration of pretty good policy toward China which made this moment — apparent moment — possible, because while we have been tough with China, I think one of Obama’s greatest foreign policy achievements is stationing troops in Australia, making sure that we’re going to be in the Pacific to counterbalance China.

That’s pretty tough, and tough all along the line, at the same time, being subtle and mature about various things so that the liberals in the Chinese regime who want to have friendly relationships are not put in a corner. They have some power. They can exercise their influence. And they can apparently do the thing which will help American-Chinese relations.

And so it’s been a pretty complicated set of policies I think over the past eight years which make this sort of deal possible, even in pretty difficult circumstances.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But in terms of how they have handled this incident?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, I think reasonably well. It’s a characteristic of our policy that we have two tracks. We have what you might call the Geithner track, which is economic, which is pretty friendly, and then the Clinton track, which is diplomatic and military, which is a lot less friendly.

But — so we’re managing both those tracks and we haven’t had them crash into each other.

MARK SHIELDS: We have major interests in common. We want their help on Iran. We want we want their help on Syria. We want their help on North Korea.

I mean, there are major economic — there is an old line, Judy, that says a banker can write a dozen bad poems and nobody says anything about it, but one poet writes a single bad check and he’s in trouble.


MARK SHIELDS: I mean, they are our banker. I mean, don’t forget that. They keep the lights on, the Chinese do. So it’s not a totally equal relationship when you approach it from Secretary Geithner’s point of view.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, speaking — you bring me around to the economy. I am going to ask you the question I ask you every month at the beginning of the month, and that is when the unemployment numbers come out.

David, more jobs were created in April, but not as many as everybody wanted. What does this say about the economy?


JUDY WOODRUFF: What is the effect on the campaign?

DAVID BROOKS: Let me get out what I have been saying for the last four years, which is, first of all. . .

MARK SHIELDS: Financial. . .


DAVID BROOKS: Financial crisis, it takes a long time to recover. I say it every month. It’s the truth.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Gee, have you said that before?

DAVID BROOKS: I say it on a monthly basis. I just should say answer A., and there it is.


DAVID BROOKS: And so the bad news is that the percentage of Americans employed is at a 30-year low.

But the second thing to be said is that this suggests that it’s not just the cyclical stuff. There really are structural problems, a lot of people , for demographic and other reasons, leaving the work force, a lot of unskilled jobs. I talked to somebody in the trucker business this week. Can’t find truckers to work. And that’s true across a lot of manufacturing.

Can’t find people, even $50,000-a-year jobs. Take the skilled blue-collar jobs, there just aren’t people with those skills. We have got those structural problems. We have got overhanging uncertainty impinging a lot of aggressive investment. And we have uncertainty about health care. We have got a rotten tax code.

And so to me what frustrates me, we were having big debates over what spending would help short term, but over the last four years, knowing we are in for a long problem, why hasn’t there been and why in this campaign isn’t there huge debates over tax reform, over entitlement reform, over middle-class stagnation?

In this debate, we have seen it go into student loans and other worthy stuff, but pretty small-bore compared to this size economic problem.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But Romney criticized — you know, the numbers were out. And Gov. Romney was critical of the president. We’re going to see that as long as the numbers aren’t well.

But what about David’s point? Why aren’t we having this bigger debate about. . .

MARK SHIELDS: I think — I hope it will be forthcoming. I think it is going to be inevitable at some point.

I would just point out that these are disappointing and really bad numbers politically for the president and the Democrats, make no mistake about it. I can recall, Judy, in the great recession of 1982, when President Reagan was in office, and he was campaigning in Texas for Jim Collins, Republican nominee for the United States Senate against Lloyd Bentsen.

And the Dow Jones had been way down. And he cheered the fact that the Dow Jones was up some 30 percent and had broken 1000 that day. And unemployment was at 10.4 percent. And the Republicans got wiped out, including Jim Collins, that November.

It isn’t the economy, stupid. It’s jobs. It is jobs, jobs, jobs. That’s what it is. I mean, don’t talk about, as some Democrats are, oh, Dow Jones at a five-year high, and manufacturing hiring is the highest it’s been since 1997. Corporate profits are up.

No, when Americans look at the economy, it’s the seminal experience of the Great Depression. It is unemployment and jobs that they look at.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, Gov. Romney said today we need to — the country needs to have 500,000 jobs being created every month in order to keep up and be. . .

MARK SHIELDS: I would point out to Gov. Romney that in the entire history of the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there have been five months in history where 500,000 jobs were created.

I mean, now, maybe he’s got a secret, and I look forward to hearing about it.

DAVID BROOKS: But, to be fair, if this were a non-financial crisis recovery and we were in a normal curve, we would be producing 400,000, and growth would be 4 or 5 percent. It would feel much different if this were a non-financial recovery.

But the point is, the productivity of the American economy is doing pretty well. Companies are doing a good job of producing stuff. They are just not using people to do it. And so that is — that is the structural problem. And so who has an answer for that? Well, I wish I knew. I don’t know. But that is a tough one.

MARK SHIELDS: It’s a terrible quandary. We are producing the same amount of goods and services we did with five million fewer workers. That is a real challenge.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We’re always going to need the two of you to talk about the news at the end of every week.


JUDY WOODRUFF: We can’t do it with anything other than the two of you.


DAVID BROOKS: Machinery. Try machinery.