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Shields and Brooks on New Year’s Predictions, Budget Fights, Chuck Hagel

January 4, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks discuss the week's top political news with Judy Woodruff, including the likely nomination of Chuck Hagel for secretary of defense, the failure of the latest budget deal to address larger fiscal problems and Washington's inability to make tough choices.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: And to the analysis of Shields and Brooks. That’s syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks.

Welcome, gentlemen.

MARK SHIELDS: Judy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, before we talk about this process of what’s happening here, assuming these news reports today are right, Mark, and it is going to be Chuck Hagel the president nominates for Defense, good choice or no?

MARK SHIELDS: I think Chuck Hagel comes with enormous strength for this position at this time.

First of all, I mean, the question is always raised, you know, is anybody able to run the Defense Department? He was a co-founder of Vanguard Cellular Systems, ran — was a president and CEO of USO worldwide.

But nobody — Leon Panetta, who has been, I think by all measures, a great secretary of defense, or certainly an outstanding secretary of defense, had no similar background. But I think what Chuck Hagel brings to the administration, in addition to his great credibility from his own military experience in combat, where he saved his brother’s life, and his brother saved him, after he requested to go to Vietnam, with orders — he enlisted in the Army, Chuck Hagel, with orders to Germany.

He instead went, enlisted, insisted on going to Vietnam. And he said that there he vowed that he would make sure the United States did not go into wars without thought, reflection, with all the elements to it. And that has been the hallmark of his foreign policy. It’s always dangerous, Judy, in this town to be right on matters in which the established authorities are wrong.

And the established authorities were absolutely wrong about the nuclear capability and capacity of Iraq. Chuck Hagel raised red flags about that at the time, even though he did vote for the war. But he publicly went on. And so I think there are questions about him, but he’s a Republican. It’s bipartisanship. He brings, I think, credibility as an enlisted man.

I just think that there’s a lot of strengths to him, and, plus, he’s an interesting and thoughtful man.

JUDY WOODRUFF: A lot of strengths, David?

DAVID BROOKS: I more or less agree with that.

I spent — first — on three subjects, first, his integrity. I spent a lot of time with him during the Iraq war, and I didn’t agree with where he was going, but he followed his conscience, he followed the evidence, and he did the hardest thing that is — one of the very hard things, which is to be unpopular in your workplace.

And he was extremely unpopular with Republicans and with Democrats because he was going off on his own course. And I thought he showed great courage and integrity, even though I may have disagreed with him. On the substance, he’s a realist. He’s — more or less, his views are similar to Colin Powell’s, I would say.

I think that puts him very much in the part of the foreign policy establishment. The idea that he is beyond the bounds on Israel or any other subject is simply not true. He’s a realist. He may not agree with you if you want to do more humanitarian interventions, the way Susan Rice actually would have, but the cautious use of power, but a pretty muscular use of power.

As for the management, that to me is the open question. He did run a business. But we have had two great managers in a row. We had Bob Gates and Leon Panetta.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Managing the Pentagon.

DAVID BROOKS: Managing the Pentagon.

And this is going to be a time that is going to require incredible management skills, because it will mean reducing the Pentagon budget, while cutting things that should be cut, and not being outfoxed by all the people who are going to want to keep programs on the Hill and within the building.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, how do you explain this big campaign against him, and the second in a row after Susan Rice?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, part of the realism is less of a moral and ideological commitment to Israel, and more of an effort to rebalance our position in the Middle East.

I think there is some genuine element to that. And so I do think he is a bit a part of that. He has been part of some organizations that have run articles, you know, about the Israel lobby that have talked about an apartheid Israel. So he has been associated with some people who have said some reasonably inflammatory things.

That’s not to say that he believes all that. So, I think that is sort of at the heart of all this. I do think it will be hard to get him nominated — or get him confirmed, because the Republicans, as Lindsey Graham said, aren’t there. And a lot of Democrats — he is a Republican, so a lot of Democrats are not quite there either.

MARK SHIELDS: He’s got incredibly widespread support, I mean, bipartisan support, I mean, just in the national security field, Frank Carlucci, who was national security adviser to President Reagan, Brent Scowcroft, to both President Bush 41 and to Gerald Ford, national security adviser, and General Brent Scowcroft, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser and a great security scholar, and General Jim Jones, who was Barack Obama’s.

I mean, it is across the board. It is Paul Volcker. It’s Tom Pickering. It is Ryan Crocker. It’s really widespread. I do think that there is some people — he wears no man’s collar. Chuck Hagel is not someone who is absolutely predictable and you’re going to — he is going to be with you 99 percent of the time and say what you want.

And I think there are some people who view any criticism of whatever the administration is in Likud as somehow disloyal to the state of Israel. If you say what the Labor Party in Israel says about Benjamin Netanyahu in this country, you would make yourself vulnerable to charges of anti-Semitism in some quarters.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, if there was a fight over — if there is a fight coming over Chuck Hagel, there has been an even bigger fight for the last weeks, months, David, over the fiscal cliff, and whatever it has been called since we first heard about it.

Is the country better off because of what this Congress passed finally at — on New Year’s Day, the day after New Year’s?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, no, I think we are immeasurably worse off. I think it was a complete failure.

Listen, what did we want out of this? The president wanted a balance deal with some tax increases and some spending cuts. We didn’t get a balanced deal. There were no real spending cuts. Second, we could have — we could have done something to address our long-term debt. That was the whole purpose behind this whole thing.

We did nothing to address our long-term debt and almost nothing to reduce deficits over the next 10 years. We could have had a stimulus package to have some short-term economic growth, which was talked about. We did nothing to do that. We did nothing to help reform entitlements.

We could have put these endless budget fights behind us, so we could get on to talk about immigration. We didn’t do that either.

We’re going to have a reconciliation — or we’re going to have a sequestration fight, a debt ceiling fight. We’re going to spend the next months, at least, having these sorts of fights again and again and again.

So this deal, to me, fails on every single front and leaves us worse off.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Are you that negative about it?

MARK SHIELDS: No. I mean, I feel like, who, Holly Golightly, compared to David.

(LAUGHTER)

MARK SHIELDS: I mean, David — David is — you know, I’m just — as I listen to him, I’m ready to slit my wrists, for goodness’ sakes.

But, no, I don’t think it was — when both sides basically admit seemingly that they lost, it is probably not a great victory for anybody. The president insisted on going in there had to be $1.6 trillion in new revenues. John Boehner offered $800 billion. And they settled for $600 billion. That’s not exactly a great triumph. At the same…

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, who’s responsible?

MARK SHIELDS: Who’s responsible?

Judy, I mean, we have — Bob Dole, who’s a great man and a great Republican senator, said, on Capitol Hill, we love to make tough speeches. We don’t like to make tough choices.

And the fact is that the American people, who want all the benefits and want the free lunch, and don’t want a single gray hair on the beautiful head of Social Security or Medicare touched, and basically don’t want to pay for it, I mean, the old line is, we elect Republicans because we don’t want to pay for it and we elect Democrats because we want everything that government is going to give us.

And it’s sort of a terrible, terrible conundrum and dilemma. So, we looked in the mirror to see whose fault there is. But I would say there has been lack of leadership as far as sacrifice across the board.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The White House.

MARK SHIELDS: The White House, to the Congress, to our national leadership, to us in the press as well, I guess, to spell out.

Look, we want people to be covered. We want people to have the coverage. There are some of us who can afford coverage, and we’re still getting those benefits.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You’re talking about Medicare, Social Security, retirement benefits.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes. Yes, exactly.

And we’re not going to have enough money to provide that coverage for everybody. And we do want to provide it for those who need it most.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, I completely agree.

We blame politics, always say Washington is all dysfunctional. They’re responding reasonably efficiently to what the American people want, which is to take the future’s money and spend it on ourselves.

And so what we are looking at, the next generation, according to the IMF, is going to have one-third fewer benefits and one-third higher taxes if we act now.

If we wait five years, it will be 50 percent more taxes, 50 percent fewer benefits. It is just terrible for the future generations. So I do think it starts with the American people. Nonetheless, I do blame everyone else, too, including us, I guess.

But I would blame the Republicans for saying they want to control spending, talking of beating their chests about it, but they don’t have a strategy, because they don’t actually have the guts to propose spending cuts. And so they talk about the debt, the debt, the debt for years and years. They finally have a chance to propose some actual reforms.

They can’t do it, because they think it would be unpopular. And then to criticize the president, I think he could have given a speech laying out exactly where we are as a country, rally public opinion behind the need to do something.

And, for Democrats, I would say, you want to pretend you’re — you want to protect valuable programs, Head Start, early childhood, well, Medicare is basically eating away at all that.

And if you don’t tackle Medicare, you are going to have less for all the stuff you want to do. So who do you care more about, the rich elderly or the poor young? And you have got to make that call.

JUDY WOODRUFF: It’s interesting you both are saying this, because so much of the criticism this week has been directed at the speaker of the House, John Boehner, struggling with his Republican Caucus.

MARK SHIELDS: He did, yes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So was that criticism deserved?

MARK SHIELDS: No, I mean, John Boehner — John Boehner tried to do a political thing, which was to try to preempt the president and the Democrats with his plan B, which was to raise taxes on millionaires, and not on others.

And he couldn’t get the votes out of his own caucus to do it. And so at that point, I mean, there are 50 people in that caucus, Judy, who basically will not go for anything. And they proved it when the final fiscal cliff bill came before the House and it had to be passed.

So, I mean, John Boehner then found himself rolled, went over to the Senate. He had no choice. And he’s got a real restless, restive constituency in that Republican House caucus. He came within three votes of not being reelected as speaker. I mean, members sat on the floor and didn’t vote. I mean, others — you know, so he’s in a very precarious position.

I don’t know why he wants to be speaker at this point, I mean, given the difficulty of the job and the precariousness of his position. I mean, I think he’s a very able legislator. I think he believes in the legislative process, but — and I think he is a grownup. But, boy, he’s got a tough row ahead of him.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Jan. 4, in less than a minute, what are the two of you looking for from Washington in the weeks and months to come?

(LAUGHTER)

DAVID BROOKS: Well, if we didn’t do anything serious about the fiscal stuff — I hate to be Mr. Gloomy Gus here — this time, in March, when we do this all over again, I don’t see why it’s going to be much different.

So, I’m a little pessimistic. Fortunately, the economy really is beginning to come back. But I don’t look — I look for a bad year. And I’m not sure we are going to get to the serious stuff like immigration.

MARK SHIELDS: I think we may get to immigration and maybe even guns, because they don’t have a price tag on them.

But we had Miles O’Brien do a wonderful piece about the sewers of Detroit on this broadcast.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We did.

MARK SHIELDS: And how are we ever going to fix them? How are we ever going to fix bridges? How are we ever going to educate children or do research?

I mean, there is no money to do it, Judy. And we don’t — we won’t tax the middle class to provide it. And we won’t cut other programs that are eating up all the funds.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Pockets are empty. Well, we’re glad of two you are here to help us understand it all.

MARK SHIELDS: And to cheer you up.

DAVID BROOKS: Cheer…

JUDY WOODRUFF: Cheer us up.

(LAUGHTER)

MARK SHIELDS: Happy New Year.

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

And Mark and David keep up the talk on The Doubleheader, recorded in our newsroom. That will be posted at the top of the Rundown later tonight.