TOPICS > Politics

Shields, Brooks on Economic Picture, Cyber Attacks, Trump’s Role for Romney

June 1, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks discuss the week's top political news with Judy Woodruff including May's lackluster jobs report, the White House decision to rev up cyber attacks against Iran plus Bill Clinton's and Donald Trump's roles as surrogates for the Obama and Romney campaigns.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So not the greatest jobs report, Mark. What does it mean for the presidential election?

MARK SHIELDS: Judy, there’s no silver lining. There is not a tin lining. There’s not a chrome lining. There’s not even — there’s nothing that is good here for the president.

The late Bob Teeter, who was George Herbert Walker Bush’s campaign chairman and pollster, remarked after the 1992 campaign, which President Bush lost, that while the economy was improving, that it takes a full three months before that for people to get a sense of change and improvement in the economy. And this is getting closer. We’re now into June, and these numbers, when people’s attitudes are starting to solidify on how they feel about the economy.

So I guess the only bright spot, if there is one, was made in Margaret’s piece, where retail sales are up, car sales are up, gas prices are still down. But what was missing, it seemed to me today, from the administration and the president was any sense of, this is what we want to do.

I mean, shouldn’t he call nine Republican House and say we have got to pass the highway bill? It passed the Senate 74-22. We lost 28,000 construction jobs. This is something we ought to do right now. Instead, it’s sort of a back and forth, and it’s Europe and it’s too many problems.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And the White House is saying, David, the president is going to say in his Saturday address tomorrow he is going to call on Congress to do something.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, I’m not sure how much — I mean, listen, we are borrowing a trillion dollars a year, we’re borrowing 40 cents on the dollar. Do we really think if we borrow a $1.1 trillion a year, somehow, that is going to magically transform the economy? I’m a little dubious.

This is a structural problem. As people said, it’s the fear factor. You have got — first of all, you had health care. What is my health care going to look like? Then you had the budget debacle, which was mostly the Republicans’ fault, last summer. Then you have got Europe, which is in a stage of, I think, slow collapse.

Then you have got China and India growth slowing. And then you have got fiscal cliff in December. So you have got just uncertainty piling on uncertainty, government introducing uncertainty even more than we have already got. And so the economy six months out really matters in elections. And there’s not that much reason to think it’s going to get suddenly better.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So is there time? I mean, maybe it’s not the time yet to ask this question. But is there time for the president to turn it in his direction?

Is time running out for him, is what I’m saying.

MARK SHIELDS: Well, no, it’s an even race. It really is. It is within the margin of error. But I think it’s the kind of race that, if the numbers continue to trend in this direction, and we all pray, as Americans, that they don’t, because we don’t want to see further suffering — the statistics don’t bleed, but we know behind all of these numbers, there are human beings and families that are facing tragedy every day.

But, no, then it becomes a race about disqualifying, a campaign about disqualifying your opponent. And that’s not attractive or appealing. It’s not hope and change. It’s blood and guts.


DAVID BROOKS: Well, I would say it’s also hard to do. Most elections are referenda. And they’re referenda on the record. It’s very hard for an incumbent to make a choice election.

So the president is obviously going to try. He is going to have. And to some extent, you have to feel sorry for him. This is in large degree not his fault. Things are happening way beyond his control. I don’t believe a president has control over a quarterly economy in any case. But the European situation is certainly not his fault. The Chinese slowdown is not his fault.

And the Europe thing cannot be underestimated. There was a study by some economists this week that, say, Greece leaves the euro peacefully. Well, that reduces growth to our 1.7. Say it brings Spain and Italy, and it as much messier. Then it is even worse. Obama has really very little control and he’s sort of a victim of this myth that presidents control the economy quarter to quarter.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Mark, he may not be responsible for it all, but he is going to bear the brunt.

And he — one thing he has been saying is, he has been going to individual states, swing states where the economy is doing a little bit better than for the country as a whole. Could that provide some salvage, or…

MARK SHIELDS: Well, it’s provided some encouragement and consolation I think for Democrats, that the winds have turned north and…


MARK SHIELDS: But I think, Judy, in the final analysis, people’s assessment of the economy is national.

It’s the national unemployment rate. It’s the Dow Jones average. It’s how people feel about the country. Those are all national figures. You may feel better personally about your own situation if your state is doing better. I think it probably helps in a place like Ohio because you can make the case there that the president’s initiative and leadership on the auto bailout has made the difference and turned Ohio around.

I think you can do that. But it hasn’t right now — Iowa is in dead heat, and that is an unemployment rate of…


DAVID BROOKS: Yes. As an ironist, you would like to think that he will be saved by fracking, that the energy industry in some of these swing states will pull him out, even though he hasn’t been the strongest champion.

But you look at the polls. The swing states are not out of the ordinary. You know, the huge growth in the oil sector, the energy sector isn’t bringing him that much. And in places like Ohio, they are just dead even, Colorado dead even, a lot of those states just dead even right now.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Meanwhile, remarkable story in The New York Times, your paper, this morning, David, about the White House being behind this massive effort to do a computer attack on Iran’s nuclear program, so-called Stuxnet.

Mark, what are we to make of this?

MARK SHIELDS: I think, Judy, there are several parts to it.

I mean, first of all, it’s a message that we are doing more to pursue our national security then simply putting boots on the ground and troops in places like Iraq and Afghanistan. I think it’s also a message that — to those who are urging military confrontation or invasion to Iran, that we are — have means of disabling and certainly hurting their capacity…


JUDY WOODRUFF: Almost invisible means.

MARK SHIELDS: Almost invisible means.

And I think it’s also, at a political level, an attempt, just as the drone story was earlier in the week, to show the president as a commander in chief, hands-on, personally engaged, personally involved, and to communicate strength.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Another New York Times story, your paper, talking about how closely the president is monitoring and making decisions on who gets hit.



DAVID BROOKS: And this latest story was — well, this latest story was David Sanger, a forthcoming book, and remarkable story.


DAVID BROOKS: And I think President Bush pulled Obama aside before the inauguration and said, we have got these two programs, the drones, the Stuxnet. They didn’t call it that. They called it Olympic Games. But here’s what you should do.

And I think Obama has continued — continued extremely aggressively. He’s kind of a ruthless guy, both politically and in foreign affairs. And he has done it I think pretty well. Now, there are some clear doubts about drones and there are legitimate doubts. Should the White House have the power to essentially assassinate people?

And we, as the government most vulnerable to cyber-terrorism, because of how much we rely on computers, we are now on record as saying, yes, we have cyber-terror. We are doing it to others. And so there’s double-edged swords here. Nonetheless, I think the bottom line is — especially vis-a-vis Iran — is that these are pretty effective programs. If you think government can’t do anything, they were — the Iranians were wondering, what is going on? Why are these things spinning weirdly out of control?

They were firing people. They thought there was something wrong with the machinery. We have people in our intelligence agencies doing something pretty impressive, I think.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes. I would just say that there are a number of people who have grave moral reservations about the over-reliance on drones, that there is something nice about it because you don’t see…


JUDY WOODRUFF: Almost antiseptic.

MARK SHIELDS: It’s antiseptic, and I don’t get my — I don’t get blood or gristle on my hands. I don’t see people suffer.

I think that was an attempt to show that the president is personally engaged, concerned about collateral damage, that he personally — hasn’t subcontracted this out or been indifferent or just sort of delegated. But at the same time, I think the question that asked is, who would you least want to have as president right now, and do you want that person having these powers?

I mean, I think that muted has been the criticism of the liberals and the Democrats on the left because it’s Barack Obama. But if it were Newt Gingrich or somebody who they don’t think as highly of or might think…


JUDY WOODRUFF: Making those kinds of decisions.

MARK SHIELDS: Making those decisions.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Two surrogates in the news, David, this week, former President Bill Clinton and Donald Trump.

Trump out there talking up how he still doesn’t believe the president was born in the United States. He is a surrogate for Mitt Romney. Bill Clinton saying that he doesn’t agree with the Obama approach of criticizing Romney’s record at Bain Capital.


First, on Trump, I sort of — he is certainly a mixed blessing.


DAVID BROOKS: Let’s put it this way.

But I do think there is a positive side to the blessing. The negative side is obvious. He’s a bit of a buffoon. But the positive side is there are a lot of people, a lot of entrepreneurs, a lot of immigrants who go to Trump University, who buy Trump books, who like the idea of Trump Tower. He is a symbol for a lot of Americans of social mobility, of starting a business and making it.

And so I do think he brings an audience, an important audience around. So it’s not automatic that you would want to write the guy off. For President Clinton, I don’t think he should be out campaigning, because he’s former president. He has his independent thoughts. He is going to say what he thinks.

And he thinks, which I think is true, that Romney has a sterling record. Well, that’s not going to be the strict talking point of the campaign. I sort of like President Bush’s strategy to just stay out of the campaign. I think former presidents should make pronouncements, not try to be surrogates for candidates.

MARK SHIELDS: I disagree on both counts.


MARK SHIELDS: I think Donald Trump is…

JUDY WOODRUFF: That’s why we have you here.

MARK SHIELDS: Donald Trump is a disaster, an unmitigated disaster.

The same national survey that asked favorable/unfavorable of the two men, Bill Clinton was 67/29 favorable, Donald Trump was 29 to 67 unfavorable. And that is the assessment of him.

He talks about the birther thing, Judy. And one out of four — that is the most I have ever seen — believe that the president wasn’t born in the United States. These are people — this is an expressed belief. Nobody really believes it. It’s because they loathe Barack Obama, they believe it.

It is the same way that when somebody is against the science of global warming, it’s like they don’t like it because they don’t like the remedies of global warming, so they reject it. That is what this is. He is not appealing to anybody. He is raising an issue that does Mitt Romney disservice.

The problem is, this is a campaign where all holds are barred for money. And you will go anywhere to get money, Donald Trump, Donald Trump in Las Vegas, Sheldon Adelson, $2 million. That’s the price he paid with a day of stories about birther.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So you are saying he does have a following and it is all about…


MARK SHIELDS: It’s just — it’s about money.

And I just think Bill Clinton is the most successful — the Democrats do not have surrogates. The Obama administration has not developed a team of surrogates. I think Bill Clinton is the most…

JUDY WOODRUFF: The way the Romney…

MARK SHIELDS: Yes. I mean, the most effective — there’s no Chris Christie right now on the Democratic side.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally, just less than a minute, John Edwards, verdict, not guilty on one count and hung jury on the rest of it.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, I was glad he got acquitted, not that I think he is a sterling model of character, but there are things you shouldn’t be prosecuted for.

And I think what did was wrong, but not prosecuted for. And so I thought it was fine.

JUDY WOODRUFF: It was all a campaign finance violation, whether he didn’t tell the truth about spending campaign money for his mistress.


Rich Lowry, who is a colleague of ours on the show from time to time, made the point that John Edwards ought not to be in jail. He ought to be under a rock. And, I mean, that’s the sentence. The sentence is that, wherever he goes, it’s the first line of his obituary, unless he takes the talents, which are enormous, and really does something with it, and, you know, outside of politics and public service.

I mean, I think he’s capable of it. He is a person of great charisma and great talent. And I will be interested to see what he does for the rest of his life.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We will leave it there.

Mark Shields, David Brooks, thank you both.

And you can see still more with Mark and David on the Doubleheader. That’s on our Web site up — coming up right after this program.