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Shields and Brooks on Sequester Blame Game, Immigration Reform

February 22, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks analyze the week's news with Judy Woodruff, including the impending automatic spending cuts due to hit next week and immigration reform.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: And to the analysis of Shields and Brooks. That is syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks.

Welcome, gentlemen.

So, as we just heard, PBS, the NewsHour focusing all this week on gun violence, on mental illness. And we just saw that report from Chicago on an effort to work with students.

David, it really does again come down to what can be done about it. And in the middle of all this, people are still looking to Washington, gun control laws. Where does it stand right now?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes.

I would say, if one has realistic expectations for the political system, the news is reasonably good. You know, obviously, it is a very polarizing issue. But I do think the sides are trying to find some sort of progress that can be made. And so, if you look at the stuff that’s likely to get through the system, we’re likely to have some background checks. We’re likely to have the magazine — or at least possible to have some magazine controls.

There is a lot of talk insurance, liability insurance for gun owners. That’s more a state thing. There’s also more prosecutorial things that is being talked about and proposed, making it hard for felons to get guns, making — controlling some of the transfers, youthful offenders.

So, there’s — these are not huge things, probably not assault weapons ban, but a series of small things to make the friction of gun ownership more difficult. I still have to say, though — and I have said this a lot — that when you look at some of the acts of gun violence, the people shot in Chicago, often it’s handguns. And there’s really very little being done on some of the — what really is the heart of the problem.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Can something be done about that?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, on — first of all, let me just say that PBS deserves credit. And I just hope that the other networks would emulate and compete.

I mean, it’s been a really important week, I think. And I think there has been this time an effort, a real effort to sustain the sense of hurt, outrage and loss of Newtown. “Slate” magazine has a running total of the number of people who have been victims of gun violence since Dec. 14th in Newtown, now at 2,124 since then.

And I think this, I think the efforts of those in positions of leadership, Vice President Biden in particular — I agree with David. I think there’s a chance. I think we will get universal background check.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You do?

MARK SHIELDS: I do. I do believe that.

I think that, first of all, Judy, the most encouraging thing is, nobody is going to filibuster this. We’re going to have votes. I mean, I think you would be in a position politically that would be indefensible not to have votes up or down. I think both sides really — I think the president put that very well in the State of the Union.

JUDY WOODRUFF: One key House committee chair said today that he was going to …

MARK SHIELDS: That’s right, Congressman Goodlatte, the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, who is himself not an advocate of gun control.

But I think limiting the size of the magazine. And I think as well that there’s a real chance for tougher penalties against straw buyers who are one of the real problems in guns, that Virginia has …

JUDY WOODRUFF: Who are buying for somebody else.

MARK SHIELDS: That’s right, exactly.

So, I think the most encouraging thing to me is we are focused on achievable goals. I’m hopeful on the assault weapon ban. I really am. And I am more encouraged than I have been in the past.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Hopeful on the assault weapon ban. Where do you see?

DAVID BROOKS: No, I don’t think so. I think that would be too heavy a lift. I think there’s a lot of opposition to that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But on background checks?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, I think that.

And you can see they’re doing a good job. The administration, I would say, is doing a good job. First, every time they talk about guns, they praise hunters, they talk about Second Amendment rights, and they have taken it out of what it had become, which is a cultural issue, urban vs. rural, more or less, and they have sort of tamped that down, focused on the practical.

I wish, actually, they would take that approach in some other spheres of our politics.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But you’re saying — you both are saying you think the administration — that there is at least a conversation going that could lead to legislation?

MARK SHIELDS: I do. I think we will get votes in the Congress, which in the past has been a problem.

DAVID BROOKS: And it should be emphasized, though, that social policy has its limits.

There’s just not much history of gun violence — or gun control limiting crime. It does, can limit suicide, but limiting some of the violence, there’s just not a great record. And that’s like a lot of social policies. You can have modest progress, but you can’t have something transformational.

I would think to get the transformational effects like in those Chicago schools, you have to have much broader social policy, you know, families, poverty, all the stuff we talk about.

MARK SHIELDS: I agree, but that was — a good part of that discussion was about impulse control and dealing with that. And those impulses are easier to control if there aren’t firearms near — proximate to where they are.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, the terrible word, sequester, it — I don’t know who chose the word, but a week from today, Mark, we are going to see the beginning, unless something changes between now and then, of automatic across-the-board federal spending cuts, $85 billion dollars worth.

Do you see anything happening between now and then to stop this from — at least the clock from ticking?

MARK SHIELDS: No, I sure don’t, Judy.

I mean, Grantland Rice, the great American sportswriter, said, when the great scorer comes to write beside your name, he writes not whether you won or lost, but how you played the game. This has been changed to, he writes not whether you won or lost, but who gets the blame. That is what we into now in Washington.

If this were really serious and a matter of national urgency and emergency, last weekend would not have been spent golfing in Florida and the Congress out of session. I mean, they would have been meeting. They would have been, you know, in serious negotiations.

And I think the Democrats are playing the fact that the president has a political advantage. He is seen as the more responsible of the two parties. The Republicans are very much on the defensive. But I don’t see — in answer to your question, I don’t see a resolution or a solution.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Do you see anything, any movement to resolve …

DAVID BROOKS: No. There were a couple of phone calls yesterday, but that’s about it, just phone calls.

I certainly don’t see any movement. As Mark said, the polls show the Democrats will probably profit. The Republicans still feel trapped, though. They feel they gave up a big tax increase a couple of weeks ago, and they can’t give up another. And that’s sort of the asking price.

And so they feel they have got to show they can cut spending. I personally think the likely loser in this is the Republicans. They’re less popular. They’re associated with cut — with government — controlling government spending. And they have basically got a problem. I think they need to show the American people that we like some government programs. We don’t like others.

They need to be able to distinguish between the two. Unfortunately, when they embrace this, they are embracing a piece of legislation that makes no distinction between good government and bad government. It just cuts randomly across the board, and, worse, doesn’t even cut the things that actually create the debt problem, which is the entitlement programs.

So, to me, this is both a substantive and political serious problem for Republicans.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, are you saying they’re going to have to move off of their position right now, no revenue increases?

DAVID BROOKS: Listen, the Republicans have been doing this since 1995, since the government shutdown.

They make a big show. They tell themselves, we’re going to control spending. They do something sort of ham-fisted. And it — when the public reaction, then they cave in and they come with concessions. So it’s not like we have not been here before. I just wish they had a little smarter strategy.

And if I could give them one piece of advice is, don’t worry about discretionary spending. When you are talking about cutting government, domestic discretionary spending, which is stuff for the National Institutes of Health and TSA, that’s small potatoes. They’re always focused on that, which is sort of the sympathetic popular stuff. Focus on the entitlement programs. But they are off doing the wrong thing, in my view.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You going to disagree with him?

MARK SHIELDS: I have to disagree with David. That’s in the contract.

MARK SHIELDS: No, I think the Republicans, you can see where they are. They are very much behind the political eight ball. And they are now saying — they’re reduced to saying, well, the cuts aren’t going to be that serious. They’re really — the Democrats are exaggerating them.

And even though they have warned about these cuts were terrible on defense, now they’re not going to be that serious, and now it was also the president’s idea to begin with. I mean, that seems to be their fallback position.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But we’re hearing today about the air traffic controllers.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes. No, that’s Secretary LaHood who is out there.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Food inspections.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes. No, that has been the — obviously, the administration’s position, that this is going to be very serious and it’s going to inconvenience people and it’s going to inconvenience travelers.

And there is a potential threat to the economy; 800,000 jobs has been predicted as the loss by Congressional Budget Office. I mean, we’re talking about serious implications and a downside. But I don’t see, Judy — I mean, I recall in 1990, when George H.W. Bush was president, and we went to Andrews Air Force Base for five weeks with the leadership of the Congress and the leadership of the White House and Dick Darman and John Sununu and — who was chief of staff for President Bush — and the president was involved and Bob Dole.

And ,you know, it was just really a major thing. I don’t see anything approaching that sense of urgency, engagement or involvement at this — at this point.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Why not?

MARK SHIELDS: Why not?

I think, in the Democrats, I think the president feels that he’s got the upper hand, the advantage on it. I think that his position is stronger, it’s more popular. He thinks it’s more defensible, and most people would agree with him. And he’s got the Republicans very much at — if not at his mercy, then certainly at a disadvantage.

DAVID BROOKS: They both like it, secretly.

The Democrats, it’s going to be probably a political win.

JUDY WOODRUFF: They want …

DAVID BROOKS: I don’t — I think they’re …

DAVID BROOKS: And they know substantively it’s a disaster.

Sequestration was designed to be stupid so it wouldn’t happen. And it succeeds magnificently at being stupid. It is really stupid policy. And so — but it’s a political win for the Democrats, so that is sort of a silver lining. And for Republicans, they can show people who sort of think they’re weak, hey, we’re tough, we’re cutting government.

And so, if you look at the conservative press, not all — The Weekly Standard, some others have said this is a bad idea. But others have said you know, we’re going to cut spending. Let’s learn to love it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, just a matter of time.

MARK SHIELDS: Well, and it was. It was intended as a nuclear option, I mean, that it was so irresponsible and so indefensible, that it would never come to pass.

And on the 1st of Mar., it will come to pass.

JUDY WOODRUFF: OK, less than two minutes, but I want to bring up immigration reform, another big subject out there.

Last weekend, there was information about the administration’s proposal on immigration. It was — Republicans say the administration, David, leaked it on purpose. Democrats say they didn’t. I mean, what do you see happening on immigration, just a quick update?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes.

I would say this is more like the gun issue than sequestration. So, people are behaving reasonably well. So, that leak came out. People sort of put it aside and said the Senate is still working. The members on both sides of the issues are working constructively together. Even labor unions and the Chamber and the business groups are sort of working together. So I would say there is significant, steady forward progress toward a bill that would provide a path to citizenship, that would get us the high-skilled workers.

I still think this is marching along reasonably well.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What do you see?

MARK SHIELDS: Yes.

Some Republicans led by Ted Cruz, the junior senator from Texas, charged that this was an attempt by the White House to sabotage the immigration bill, in hopes that it would be a political advantage for the Democrats in 2014 and 2016.

You know, I don’t think that’s true. I mean, I think it’s in both party’s interests. I think it’s in the president’s legacy to resolve the immigration, it comes — to pass a significant, historic statute. I think it’s in the Republicans’ interest to pass a law that at least enables them then to start to compete and campaign for Hispanic votes in the future.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Both of you see some movement here. All right.

We hate to ask you to move off the set, but it is the end of our time.

JUDY WOODRUFF: David Brooks, Mark Shields, 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.