TOPICS > Politics

Shields, Brooks on Obama, Romney Split on Gay Marriage, Austerity Backlash

May 11, 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 President Obama's new support for gay marriage, Mitt Romney's "subtle gradations" on the issue, the backlash over austerity in European elections and the House Republicans' votes on the defense budget.

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

Gentlemen, it’s good to see you both.

So, Mark, the president came out and said he’s in favor of gay marriage. How big a deal is that?

MARK SHIELDS: He did. He did do that, Judy.

It — first of all, it was not orchestrated. That seems to be the suspicion of all the conspiracy buffs in Washington that, oh, boy, wasn’t this clever? It really wasn’t clever. Joe Biden came — as you pointed out in the piece, came bluntly out, and then Arne Duncan. They were going go one by one through the Cabinet until they got to the president.

And the president had an untenable position, which was his position was evolving. No leader on a controversial issue can say, my position is evolving. You expect a leader to say, I have thought about this. I have come to this conclusion. This is what I have decided.

And the president did decide. And it is a deal. How big a deal it’s going to be, I would say this. For the Democrats, the Democrats are trailing Republicans in enthusiasm about this election, quite the opposite of 2008, where all the enthusiasm and intensity was on the Democratic side. This may generate some enthusiasm among those younger voters who were so energized in 2008 and are far less so in 2012.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What about the import of the president’s doing this? How is history going to look back?

DAVID BROOKS: I think it will be a significant step.

Listen, this is remarkable issue which — rare that you see public opinion shift so fast on one issue. It has been led by young people, people under 40. But people over 60 are moving, Republicans are moving, Democrats are moving. And so there has been just this incredible shift in public opinion.

It’s in contrast to, say, the abortion issue, which is pretty much stagnant for decade over decade. This, you see this whole shift. And so the president has not led the shift. But he’s moved along with it will. And so, in 1996, he filled out a questionnaire where he said he was for gay marriage. Then he sort of backed off that for a long time. And, you know, you understand why. You don’t expect our politicians to commit political suicide, do something tremendously unpopular.

And he didn’t. And then, eventually, he decided that he was going to follow along. . .


DAVID BROOKS: . . . and get with the program, so to speak. And so he hasn’t been out front. Nonetheless, I think he has done the right thing.

I think it will be remembered as a very important step for a civil rights victory. And I think it was a brave step. It is something that I think will hurt him.

DAVID BROOKS: It will — and it arguable both ways. Mark points out it will build up intensity. But I think on state-by-state, there are crucial states, like North Carolina, Missouri, Ohio, Pennsylvania maybe, where you have got pretty significant majorities who oppose gay marriage.

And so I think, in some of those states, to the extent that this issue matters at all in the election, it will have an effect.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So trump the economy as an issue for voters?

MARK SHIELDS: No, I don’t think it will.

David is absolutely right. In 1996, Judy, when Bill Clinton was president of the United States, 27 percent favored it, according to the Gallup Poll, 68 percent against it. The same Gallup poll now shows a majority of Americans supporting it. That is a dramatic change in 15 years.

And credit has to go to people like David Brooks, who is a conservative thinker, who made the case that if you cared about stability, and you cared about institutions, that you had to be for gay marriage, and especially if you wanted permanence in relationships as far as the nurturing of children.

I read that 27 percent of gay couples now have children. And more and more people have seen this. And more and more people have gay friends. I agree with David. In 2004, I believe George Bush carried the state of Ohio against John Kerry because there was a same-sex marriage amendment on the ballot.

And I don’t say that Ohio has become Berkeley overnight. But I think the economy does trump this. I think African-American voters, when tested, who voted in large numbers against same-sex in 2004 in Ohio, will, in fact, support the only African-American ever elected to the White House and overcome their — and I think there has been a change. I really do.

I don’t know what the result is going to be. But it’s — I think it is a step and it certainly put the lie to the canard that same-sex marriage threatens traditional marriage.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You mentioned gay adoption.

It was interesting, David, that Mitt Romney said he believes that marriage should be between a man and woman, but he said he thinks it’s all right for gay couples to adopt children. How do you square that?


Yeah. No, he has been sort of — well, when running for governor in Massachusetts, he was much friendlier, at least in intonation. So there’s been subtle gradations. And I’m pretty sure this is how the Republican Party is going to handle it. They’re not comfortable with their position.

They’re certainly not comfortable with the socially conservative traditional position that it is just an abomination and wrong. And so you will not — you hear in Washington this week a lot of very anxious Republican pollsters saying, you do not want to go there, you do not want to pick a fight on this issue.

And so it will be unlike 2004, where they were eager to pick a fight. As I say, I don’t think it will help Obama in some of these states, very particular states. I do not see Republicans leaping on this, because they can see which way the winds are blowing.

MARK SHIELDS: And, Judy, pointing out, Mitt Romney’s position on it makes President Obama’s look crystal-clear and totally born of principle.

He is for, you are right, gays being able to adopt. But he’s for unwed parents for children. In other words, he doesn’t want the stability, the security of a family legally and so forth.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Doesn’t want them to be married.

MARK SHIELDS: And he’s for a constitutional amendment to outlaw gay marriage.

So you have Obama, who says he’s for same-sex marriage, but he wants to do it on a state-by-state basis, not the traditional Democratic approach to most problems. And the Republican is saying he doesn’t want to do it by states’ right. He wants to do it with a federal mandate. So both sides are a little bit contradictory in there.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Which is kind of the opposite of what one normally thinks of Democrats and Republicans.

DAVID BROOKS: Right. And for Obama, of course, it is a little bit of an out to say it’s a state issue. It means he doesn’t have to get on the affirmative and talk about. . .

MARK SHIELDS: That’s right.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Just quickly to both of you, a word about this Washington Post story about what happened when Romney was in high school.

He was a senior about to graduate and there was this incident where he and some of his friends held down a classmate, and then cut — and Romney and others cut his hair. Romney says he doesn’t remember it. Five of the classmates say they do. Does this go anywhere?

DAVID BROOKS: I don’t think so. It was an ugly episode, but there is no record of him behaving like this as an adult. Quite the contrary.

When you interview him people about his career at Bain, as governor of Massachusetts, in the campaign, they talk about him being extremely kind and compassionate. You can attack Romney for being a flip-flopper and stuff like that. You cannot attack him for being a cruel bully. It is just not in his adult record.

So, to me, this was a piece of his life that happened when he was young, wildly out of context with his adult record, and blown out of proportion.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Mark, he says he doesn’t remember it, but he says, if he did something wrong, then he’s sorry for it.

MARK SHIELDS: If I offend anybody by holding them down and cutting his hair off and bullying him — of course, if it did happen, as his classmates testify that it did, he does remember it, I mean, because it is an unhappy chapter.

He would prefer not to remember it. But I do not think it has any legs as a political issue. And this is a man who has run twice for president, who has had opposition research done by Republican candidates and opponents of him who don’t like him, who would use just about anything they could. And there is no pattern of his abusive behavior that I have ever heard of, save this one incident, which is ugly and offensive, and one that he would like to disremember.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Completely different subject, a couple of countries in Europe, David, voted this week, Greece and France.

And the voters lashing out against austerity. We have talked about this a little bit here, but what does this say. And is it going to have repercussions in this country?



DAVID BROOKS: First, what it says — and let’s first define what the austerity is that we are talking about in Europe.


DAVID BROOKS: Some countries in Europe, like Greece and some of the smaller Central European countries, have actually cut spending. None of the other big countries have. In France, in Britain, in Italy, in Spain, spending is still going up.

They have — some of them have promised future spending cuts and a lot of them have raised taxes. So, a lot of the austerity is not spending cuts. It’s tax increases primarily. And so the austerity, it’s not — it doesn’t have a clear relationship to what we are arguing about here, about whether we should cut spending.

Nonetheless, it is true that economies around the world are in terrible shape. And incumbents are losing. Gordon Brown lost in Britain, Sarkozy now. People are getting thrown out by angry electorates. And so it is a perilous time to be an incumbent.

MARK SHIELDS: Unemployment was at a 13-year high in France. Austerity, I think, define it what you will, hasn’t worked, and certainly hasn’t worked in Great Britain, which is the closest to us, a country with its own economy and most comparable.

And I just could not believe that the Republicans in the House of Representatives doubled down in austerity just — I mean, you could say it was an act of great high principles.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The vote on the Defense cuts.

MARK SHIELDS: To vote to preserve every penny of defense spending, even though the Pentagon said they don’t need it, and cutting literally billions from social programs like for — for the long-term unemployed and single mothers.

It is just a remarkable decision. They lost 16 Republicans in the House in doing so. And I think you are starting to see cracks in the Republican approach. And Romney now is going to be tied to this because he has endorsed the Republican House budget.

JUDY WOODRUFF: This is not a vote that is going to stand necessarily, though, is it, David? This is the House.

DAVID BROOKS: It’s a symbolic vote.

And, as I say, what the Republicans are trying to head off is where Europe is, where they — some of those countries, namely Greece, they have to stabilize their debt. They have no choice. They have a different currency situation, but they have no choice.

And the Republican point is, we need to prevent us from getting there. Nonetheless, I sort of agree with Mark. It’s just a politically unsustainable position to be cutting food stamps and all this other stuff and not touching the defense budget. I understand the need to have a strong defense and to preserve our ability to project power.

And it’s fine to lay down a marker for your base. It’s just not a sustainable position. I think the Republicans are making a big mistake.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And it’s cutting, what, Meals on Wheels and child care assistance.

MARK SHIELDS: Meals on — yes, child care, exactly.

And, Judy, just to add one thing to the point that David makes, Ronald Reagan doubled the defense budget in 1980, but — in 1981. But Ronald Reagan also signed the largest tax increase in the history of the United States in 1982 to pay for it.

I mean, what the House Republicans’ position is now they will not raise a penny of revenue from any source. They voted actually to support farm subsidies for farmers, while cutting food stamps, and to preserve them, rather than to pay for the food stamps. And I just think that is going to be a politically difficult position for the Republicans to maintain in the campaign.


Two speed answers. The loss of Dick Lugar in Indiana this week, running for reelection.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. I think he lost primarily because he was getting older, paid a lot of attention to foreign policy. People want this change and he was the personification of the establishment. Nonetheless, it sends a message: Don’t compromise.

And other Republicans and other Democrats will learn that lesson.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Mark, in West Virginia, the president running in the Democratic presidential primary, 60 percent of the vote against a convicted felon, who got 40 percent.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes, I think it’s a terrible warning to the White House that, in a closed Democratic primary, Democratic voters participating, that the president’s opponent, who was a convicted felon serving 230 months in jail, got over 40 percent of the vote, carried 10 counties without spending a dime or without any kind of a campaign.

And, Judy, to me, it just says something that — when the Democratic United States senator will not say whether he voted for the president in the primary against the felon, nor will the Democratic government, that’s a warning that are you in trouble.

JUDY WOODRUFF: It may be a warning.

DAVID BROOKS: I’m for voting for felons. It saves time.


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

And if you want even more of Mark and David — and of course you do — they talk sports and politics with Hari later this evening in what we call the Doubleheader.