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Shields and Brooks on the Cusp of Sequester, Voting Rights Act at Supreme Court

March 1, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks discuss the impending sequestration, strategies used by Democrats and Republicans to avoid the spending cuts and a provision of the landmark Voting Rights Act being argued at the Supreme Court.
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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.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Welcome back to the program.

MARK SHIELDS: Thank you, Judy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So here we are, March the 1st, Mark, on the verge, on the cusp of yet another fiscal showdown. The president says it’s not the apocalypse.

What is it then?

MARK SHIELDS: For people who care about politics and believe that government can be a force for good, it’s been a very tough month, because I think every time we come to one more of these showdowns, gridlocks, whatever you want to call them, that you can feel a further erosion of public trust, public confidence in our ability to act positively for the common good.

And I just — I think that’s where we are right now. I mean, in a political sense, Judy, the Republicans are worse off than the Democrats. I mean, they are — the latest Wall Street Journal/NBC poll, only a full-third of Republicans think that the Republicans in Congress are arguing — or are operating just for partisan advantage and not to unify the country. I mean, by a 3-1 margin, overall, voters feel that about Republicans.

But the Democrats are not that much better off. It’s just — it’s a dreary, dismal and I think disappointing time.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How do you see what — here we go again.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, just dysfunction as normal.

And I am of a view that it is possible that government could do a little trimming over the next couple years. We have seen this tremendous expansion in government spending over the last five years. All you have to do is live in Washington to see the just office parks, the contractors springing up.

But we have had a very rich five or six years here in Washington. So I do think it’s possible to do the trimming. But to do it the way we’re doing is just an insult to the idea of governments. You just take a simple statistic. What does government do that most people like? Most of it we call discretionary spending on education, Head Start, grants for universities.

That’s like 14 percent of the budget. It’s taking almost half the cuts, so all the big programs that actually lead to the debt are getting almost excluded from the cuts. All the little programs, they are getting savaged. And so it’s just a mindless exercise.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, that’s the way it was designed, though, wasn’t it, to across the board, to be the kind of thing that neither side …

DAVID BROOKS: That’s right. It was, yes.

Right, but I would say that now both parties seem to have gotten used to it. I think it’s now likely that this will all just happen, and it won’t get repealed in a few weeks, and we will just be living with this. And so it’s — you know, they have come to love it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Does one — Mark, is one side or another more to blame for this, and does that question even matter anymore?

MARK SHIELDS: Yes, I think, I think the Republicans are locked into a position right now.

I mean, virtually every — every study involving Republican economists, Democratic economists, nonpartisan economists has concluded it’s going to require both to be done, to require tax, new revenues, as well as the cuts, but — and that the Republicans have locked in that they will not support any new revenues. So I think, in that sense, they have put themselves in a position which is a minority position in the country as well.

And I think they’re playing a very difficult hand. They have given themselves a very difficult hand.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Do you agree, that the Republicans …

DAVID BROOKS: I think they will take more of the blame, and with some justice.

I do think they have to give on revenues. I would say a couple things in their defense, and a little criticism of the Democratic side. First, we have — they have given a lot on revenue already. We can’t continue to raise taxes again and again on the top two percent, because once you push people above where more than 50 or 60 percent of their income is going to tax, they start behaving in counterproductive ways.

So we can’t just tax the top two percent. We got to have more revenue, but I think you have got to widen it down, a little down the income scale. The second thing I would blame the administration for is not sort of going bigger and saying, here is the big problem, which is entitlements. If we want to save these domestic programs, we do have to have Medicare reform.

Now, to be fair, the president does have some, some of that. But I wish he would go out into the country and sell it, because one of the fundamental problems we have is that 80 percent of Americans said don’t touch a cent of Medicare. And somebody has to explain to them that’s just not a tenable position.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, I get …

MARK SHIELDS: Yes.

No, I mean, I don’t absolve the Democrats completely from this, Judy, by any means. But I think the Republicans have put themselves in an indefensible position. And I think it’s not only substantively, but politically.

But, I mean, there are very few Democrats — they come up with a tax bill. Democrats talk about, we have got to get rid of this private jet loophole, we got to get rid of carried interest. Well, if you look — which allows people on Wall Street to pay at income, their income at a rate of 15 percent on the private equity. And it wasn’t included in neither of the Democratic proposals to eliminate the private jet coverage.

You know, I would like to see — I would like to see them go big. We had that chance in August of 2011. I hate to think that that was the only time, when Speaker Boehner and the president were close to coming up what looked to be a grand bargain.

DAVID BROOKS: If I could take a quick whack at the Republicans, just because I think their political strategy is just insane.

If you are going to be serious about the deficits and the debt, which they claim to be, you can’t just pick out the most trivial programs and demand cuts in those. And then, because you know you are going to demand cuts in those, and then when the public comes down on you, you are going to cave in and surrender anyway. So, why don’t they have a long-term to fix — to focus on the real problem, instead of some politically, for them, easy problem that is going to be politically untenable in the long run anyway?

JUDY WOODRUFF: There are those out there who are saying the two sides are really not all that far apart, that the president is prepared to do entitlement reform. The Republicans want entitlement reform. The president says he wants tax changes. The Republicans don’t want those tax changes, but they have said in the past they were willing to close loopholes.

Is it — is it theater? Is there that deep a philosophical difference between the two sides?

MARK SHIELDS: I’m not sure that there is the will right now.

I don’t know the gulf, because an awful lot of it is posing and posturing on both sides. I’m not sure what the non-negotiable — the really non-negotiable parts that are dividing them are. But I don’t think that there is that sense of political will that we can do it.

And let’s be very blunt about it. The Wall Street Journal/NBC poll asks, who do you think is better on 12 different issues? The Democrats are seen as better on everything from taxation, to the economy, to health care, to Medicare, I mean, across — immigration. I mean, the Republicans are left with what have been their whole cards all these years. That’s cutting the deficit, national defense. I mean, that’s it.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. And people think the Republicans are fanatically anti-government, and they don’t make discrimination between good government and bad government.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes.

DAVID BROOKS: And so here they are sort of supporting something that is exactly that, this mindless thing that doesn’t discriminate between the two.

And what does the country need? It needs just a sign that Washington can function. The housing market is beginning to turn around. There’s some sign of green shoots — just a sign they can function. Not going to happen.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, meanwhile, you still have a sideshow squabble over whether the White House or the Congress first suggested this.

Bob Woodward was at the center of this back and forth this week over whether he got a …

MARK SHIELDS: Well, what’s fascinating about …

JUDY WOODRUFF: Tough language in an e-mail from the White …

MARK SHIELDS: Yes, from Gene Sperling.

JUDY WOODRUFF: From Gene Sperling.

MARK SHIELDS: You know, the real — the godfather of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

For those who don’t know Gene Sperling, Gene is not a terribly intimidating public figure, I think, or personal figure. But the irony of this is how Bob Woodward has become now, who is blamed, blamed by two generations of conservatives and Republicans for bringing, with the possible exception of Richard Nixon, having more to do with Richard Nixon’s impeachment than any other living human being — I mean, he was obviously a liberal agent, an agent provocateur.

Now he is embraced by conservatives because he has exposed or allegedly exposed the White House.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Saying it’s the president who …

MARK SHIELDS: That it’s the paternity.

JUDY WOODRUFF: … is behind this.

MARK SHIELDS: Who has the paternity of this? I mean, it is Gramm-Rudman revisited 25 years later. That is what it is.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, the Voting Rights Act, David, arguments between the Supreme Court this week, what did you make of this? This is a much-anticipated case.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes.

Well, Antonin Scalia said something obnoxious about voting…

JUDY WOODRUFF: Racial …

DAVID BROOKS: … being a racial — I forget the phrase.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Entitlement.

DAVID BROOKS: Entitlement — which is ridiculous.

But I do have to say I was sort of surprised reading through the arguments that I was a little more persuaded that some of the skeptics have some point, have a much stronger argument than I thought, and that their core argument is that, in 1964 or ’65, the voting right abuses was localized in some of these states which are under this provision which is under discussion.

Now, if you look at the map of where the abuses are, they’re nationalized. It’s not 1964 anymore. And in some cases, states like Mississippi, African-American voting rates are higher than white voting rates. And so it’s the idea that we are just going to punish the five or the number of states that were punished in 1964, that’s sort of becoming a little more obsolete.

I thought they made a reasonably strong case about that just on the merits. Whether we want the court to step in and make that determination is a separate issue.

MARK SHIELDS: Judy, every election, there is one thing we could rely upon. Republicans are against taxes. Democrats are Social Security and Medicare. And every Republican was going to appoint judges who were strict constructionists, who would abide by the law, wouldn’t write the law. These damn liberals are writing the law.

MARK SHIELDS: Now, we had, if I’m not mistaken — the legislative process worked its will in 2006. We had 15,000 pages of testimony. We had 90 witnesses.

By a 390-33 vote in the House and a 98-0 vote in the Senate, they extended the law. And what has changed since then? The only thing I can see that has changed is that David Souter left the court, and Sam Alito joined the court. And so now we have got these activist conservative judges.

David is right in the sense that the real efforts to make it tougher to vote were in places like Pennsylvania, where, unfortunately for the Republican Senate leader in Pennsylvania, was caught on tape saying, this is how we’re going to carry Pennsylvania for Mitt Romney, is to keep people from voting.

We had a 102-year-old woman in Florida who voted — waited three-and-a-half-hours to vote. I mean, there is a need to — and I would say nationalizing the standards is probably …

JUDY WOODRUFF: But that’s not — that wasn’t the question.

DAVID BROOKS: Right.

Well, the administration was asked about this specifically, and they said, no, we don’t want to do that.

MARK SHIELDS: No, that’s right.

DAVID BROOKS: These are states’ obligations. This is a state matter. And so it becomes a little hard to nationalize it.

But I do think either you trust people or you don’t. And the one thing I will say, which is just an interesting empirical point, these efforts in places like Pennsylvania to try to restrict voting were so completely counterproductive, I have to think that one of the reasons minority participation was so phenomenally high this time was because it was in a reaction against these things.

I think any party, especially the Republican Party, would be phenomenally stupid, let alone the fairness issue, phenomenally stupid to ever try this again.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I mean, invincible stupidity …

MARK SHIELDS: … is not a stranger in American politics.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, there is everything invincible about the two of you.

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.