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Shields and Brooks on Obama’s New Term, Gun Control and Culture in America

January 18, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks talk with Jeffrey Brown about the week's political news, including President Obama's executive actions on gun control, the future of gun culture in America, resolving the debt ceiling fight in Congress and the president at the beginning of a new term.

JEFFREY BROWN: And that brings us finally tonight to the analysis of Shields and Brooks, syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks.

Welcome, gentlemen.

I want to go back earlier in the week, and let’s start with guns. I want to know first, Mark — David, are you surprised by the scale of the president’s proposal and surprised by the personal commitment that he seemed to put into it?

DAVID BROOKS: I think so.

I was surprised by the assault weapons part. I knew there would be the waiting list and some of the other things, the magazine stuff, but it was pretty comprehensive.

And it’s worth pointing out that this was an issue that Democrats spent 10 years ignoring, and for good reasons — or good political reasons, anyway, not good substantive reasons — which was that it was seen as a cultural issue which alienated you from rural voters and it hurts Democrats — or hurts Democrats who are in red states.

I still think that’s basically true. But he went out there pretty comprehensively, and I would say more boldly than would have been politically — a simple political calculation. And I think they are generally sensible reforms. So, I guess I sort of salute him. I have doubts about how much good it will actually do, but I think it was sort of impressive in its nonpolitical nature.

JEFFREY BROWN: What do you think about — before you get to the whether it will go anywhere, what do you think just about the scope of it and the way he did it?

MARK SHIELDS: I thought the president did it well.

I thought — I think it’s realistic. I think it is attainable. But it’s not unambitious. And I think he’s — as you put it in your question, he has put his own commitment on the line. And I think that’s the test.

JEFFREY BROWN: So now you think it’s not unattainable? I should put that positively.


JEFFREY BROWN: You think it’s attainable?

MARK SHIELDS: I don’t know.

David described the history and the context of it. But, you know, I do think that Newtown changed it. And I think Newtown changed it in a way that none of us really understands. And it is because of victims and the teachers. It is just that setting. It is just — it’s such an absolutely unimaginable setting.

And I just — just on a personal note, on April 9, 1968, I was in Ebenezer Baptist Church when Martin Luther King’s funeral — a remarkable event. And two months later, I was working in California in Robert Kennedy’s campaign when he was shot.

Martin Luther King was 39. Robert Kennedy was 42. That’s — 42 years after their being shot, 1,260,703 Americans died in firearms — by firearms. In the total history of the United States in every war, in the Revolutionary, all the world’s wars, 659,000 Americans have died in combat, twice as many in one-fifth the time.

And I think the president has the capacity and the standing at this point to make that case that we — that this is not American exceptionalism, when we have five times — four times as many people killed in this country as in the next 21 richest countries in the world in one year.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, but you — you can cite the numbers, and yet the NRA and others opponents came out ahead of this to say nothing would happen. They came out the minute he was done speaking.

And then the White House says, yes, it’s going to be hard, but we think we might be able to do something.


First, it is always striking how young they were, FDR — I mean, MLK and — but, listen, I support the things, all the laws. If I were a member of the Congress, I would vote for it all. But the data is very problematic for the proponents.

We have had terrible research, in part because the NRA prevents good research. But the research we have doesn’t suggest these things make a huge difference. We have had a big bill in ’68. We had the Brady bill. We have had other bills. In general, when you look at the broad survey of the research, it is very hard to see big differences.

There are some areas where you do see differences. Some of the magazines do reduce en masse killing. But the level of murders, it doesn’t really change much. Where I think it is most fertile to make progress, most gun violence is suicides. And if you could — and a lot of those suicides are impulsive.

And if you can delay people’s access to guns by a week, you really can do potentially some good in preventing some suicides, especially senior citizens. So I think there are some possibilities. The danger there, again — and this is all problematic — most people who kill themselves with guns do it with handguns, which are not really under discussion here.

And so the social science data, I think, is reasonably sound not that — not that it doesn’t work, but it doesn’t work a lot.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, what is your sense of whether the White House understands the politics of this? I mean, whether there’s still many questions about the effectiveness, I mean, the real — the effectiveness of the law, but then there is the politics.

MARK SHIELDS: To question whether Barack Obama and those around him understand the politics, I think, is like asking whether Henry VIII knew anything about food.

MARK SHIELDS: I mean, these are people who have mastered — I mean, he was reelected president of the United States with over a majority of the vote, with an economy that can only be described as suffering and troubled.

So he understands the politics of it. He knows that it is an uphill fight. But the reality is — and what police officers will tell you, as well, police chiefs in particular, is, it is the impulsive act, and it’s the idea of multi-deaths at a time which is what a gun can do.

I mean, it’s not just violence. But we have changed the culture in this country as far as smoking has concerned. When I was a PFC, cigarettes were $2 a carton. Now it’s $9 for a pack of cigarettes. And there is a stigma. We don’t see smoking in movies anymore. We don’t see that same level of social acceptance.

I mean, and I think the culture is part of it, there’s no doubt about it.

DAVID BROOKS: If I could just — one on the politics, I think the ambitiousness of the proposals was politically savvy, because it will allow a lot of senators from marginal areas who are swinging in the middle there to say, well, I’m not for the assault weapons ban, that’s too far, but I am for some other things.

And so I think they will chop off some of the — a few pieces of the Obama package.

JEFFREY BROWN: Some of those might…

DAVID BROOKS: But it might make it more likely that some of the other stuff will get in having to do with the magazines or the waiting period.

JEFFREY BROWN: What about — the other thing he came out very strong on early in the week in his press conference, Mark, was again on the debt negotiations, the debt limit. He said no negotiations.

What about the politics there? Are you surprised by him putting — what is he saying putting down that marker?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I think we saw it today in Williamsburg, when the Republicans announced that they were going to postpone for three months, that they would raise the debt ceiling, vote on it next week.

I think the president understood that he came out of the initial round strengthened, and the Republicans came out weakened. Right now, Jeff, the Republican Party is in as bad shape politically as I can ever remember it as being. The Republican Party, which was favorable in public opinion just as recently as two years ago, is now minus-23 percent unfavorable.

John Boehner, who was favorable, has dropped to the point where he is 19 percent unfavorable in public opinion polls. It is the lowest ever recorded in the history of The Wall Street Journal/NBC poll. So they had to get off this. They just — they couldn’t face this fight again.

And the sense of people is that, if it did lead to a — the government defaulting on its obligations and Social Security checks not going out, and checks not going out to military personnel, that the Republicans would be blamed again. So, I think the president understood the advantage he had. And he played it.

JEFFREY BROWN: And the Republicans understood their own situation in today’s action?

DAVID BROOKS: Some of the — yes, the professionals did. John Boehner did. And I think what we have seen in today’s action was John Boehner working his will.

And I think to the extent there was rebellion in the party, I think he’s pretty much controlled it. But it should be said that what Boehner has achieved, first, it’s avoiding disaster.

It’s avoiding doing something incredibly stupid to yourself. And he’s done pretty good at that. Has he led or did we see in this retreat some new thinking of how to turn around the fundamental problem with the party, which is the dive in the polls?

I don’t think we saw much evidence of much thinking. I don’t see — I think there was a lot of tactical discussions. We haven’t really seen the party really begin to internalize the need to change.

And as good as I think Boehner is at averting catastrophe for his party, I don’t really think he’s the guy who is going to sort of recover the party or who is going to provide fresh thinking.

And we have seen precious little of that. So I would say that the next two years will be worse for the Republican Party than the last…

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, you are calling this a retreat of — and it’s a three-months extension. It doesn’t resolve anything, right? It just pushes it down the line.

MARK SHIELDS: No, but it said that the confrontation didn’t work the first time, and it wasn’t going to work the next time.

I think that’s really what — what comes out of this. Let’s be very blunt about it. I mean, I like John Boehner, and David and I have both spoken highly about him. De facto, Nancy Pelosi is the speaker of the House right now, and Steny Hoyer is the majority leader, not Eric Cantor.

JEFFREY BROWN: You say that because?

MARK SHIELDS: Because we have had two major legislative initiatives in this — important ones, one to avoid the fiscal cliff and plummeting off it. And left to their own votes, the Republicans rejected it. It was passed only because of Democrats. Then, after that, we had the vote on Hurricane Sandy and the people of New York and New Jersey and New England who were devastated by it to get the same kind of treatment that the people who suffered from Katrina did.

Left to Republican votes and John Boehner’s best efforts, it failed in the House of Representatives. Democrats passed it. Both cases, Democrats were the key.

DAVID BROOKS: I think that’s a — that’s — these are exceptional cases, though.


DAVID BROOKS: In the years ahead, the Republicans are going to discover they can’t govern only controlling the House. You the Democrats are going to discover they can’t get much done unless they control the House.

And I think, in general, the general pattern is Republicans will be able to block a lot of what…

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, here we are, the Friday before the inauguration, second inauguration, a second term. So we’re talking about the president’s actions this week, positioned.

How he is positioning himself? What do you see in that for the second term?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I think, right now, he’s sort of in a much more moderate spot than he was the last time.

I think if you look at the first two big issues out of the — first, the fiscal fight where he’s got the public on his side, basically. You have got immigration, where he’s got the public on his side.

And the Republicans are much more divided than conventional wisdom here is now saying. A lot of people are saying, oh, Republicans need to win over Hispanics, so they are going to move on immigration.

Believe me, that is going to be extremely difficult for the Republican Party, more so than we anticipate. And then he’s got the gun things, where I think he’s got a lot of probably the public on his side there. So I think he’s sitting pretty right now. Whether he will get this stuff passed, I’m a little dubious about.

But right now, as far as building political momentum for the Democratic Party, I think he’s doing pretty well.

MARK SHIELDS: He has got the highest favorable ratings that he has had, job rating, since his first year in office. His personal scores on intelligence, and compassion and likability are very high.

But there are not-so-great expectations for the second term. There isn’t that sense of hope that there was in 2009, as Peter Hart put it, that it’s more now about coping, rather than hoping. And I think there is a lot of truth to that.

But — and I think that’s — that’s — really, the reality has set in. And the president is still not seen as strong in dealing with the Congress, changing the way things work in Washington. A lot of people blame Republicans for it, and with some justification. But he hasn’t been able to work his will that way.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, we will talk about this more on Monday. Right?


JEFFREY BROWN: David Brooks, Mark Shields, thanks, as always.

And Mark and David will continue their discussion, with a side of sports, on The Doubleheader. That will be posted online at the top of the Rundown later tonight.