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Shields and Brooks on CPAC, Obama’s Outreach to Congress, Pope Francis

March 15, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
New York Times columnist David Brooks and syndicated columnist Mark Shields talk with Judy Woodruff about who was and wasn't at the annual CPAC meeting, whether President Obama's bipartisan outreach to Congress will produce results, plus words on what the new pope's leadership may mean for the Catholic Church.
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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.

It’s good to see you both.

MARK SHIELDS: Thank you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Mark, looking at this CPAC conference that Kwame was reporting on, what are do to make of the Republican Party, the conservative movement right now?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, first a cautionary note.

The CPAC is not representative of the Republican Party, by any means. The straw poll in the past of presidential candidates has elected President Rudy Giuliani, President Jack Kemp three times, President Steve Forbes, President Ron Paul.

DAVID BROOKS: Michele Bachmann.

MARK SHIELDS: I mean, they — yes, they’re just outside of the mainstream.

But I think Whit Ayres, the Republican pollster, put his finger on it when he said Republicans have lost five of the last six presidential elections’ popular vote. And that obviously includes the 2000. And, Judy, the most revealing thing to me was the response that Rand Paul got. He was the rock star, I thought, of this gathering.

And in part, it’s because I think the discredited over the last 12 years Republican foreign policy game plan, which is let’s go in first and ask questions later, has been really undermined and sabotaged by both the American experience in Iraq and the American experience in Afghanistan.

There’s been a long tradition of isolationism in the Republican Party. But I think there’s now a reluctance, a certain caution that hadn’t been there in the past about foreign intervention.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Rand Paul has struck a chord with …

DAVID BROOKS: I’m curious about that. You know, he has at the moment.

But this is party that believes in American leadership in the world, that believes America has an important role to play as the world leader in creating a global order, free trade, free waterways, free commerce, free movement of people. That happens because of U.S. military might.

The idea that the party is not going to be that party, it’s happened. In the 1920s, the party shifted and became a much more isolationist party. The idea that this party is going to go back to that, I will have to see it to believe it. Now, right now, they’re in a mood where the president from the other party, a mood of non-intervention, a mood of austerity, a mood of war exhaustion.

But when there’s a threat from Iran, I still believe the Republican Party is going to be a defense party. It’s going to be a pretty interventionist party globally. But Rand Paul is the key unknown here. And he is leading the party one way. Marco Rubio is leading another.

As we sit here, in about an hour-and-a-half, Jeb Bush is going to give a speech, which is probably the most reformist of all the speeches that is going to be delivered.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Reformist?

DAVID BROOKS: Meaning what Whit Ayres said.

So, Marco Rubio — Rand Paul, he’s reformist in one way. Let’s pull back. Let’s be more libertarian. Marco Rubio said something to me phenomenally stupid: We don’t need new ideas.

That’s never a good thing to say, but nonetheless he’s more mainstream and moderate. I think Jeb Bush is pushing the other direction: We have really got to change our message. We have got to talk to people who are poor, working-class.

So, you’re beginning to see the splits, even though the CPAC is not where it’s at.

MARK SHIELDS: Jeb Bush — it will be interesting. I agree Jeb Bush has great credentials. He hasn’t run an election since 2002. And his rustiness was on display here last week when he had to change his position three times in the space of 24 hours on immigration.

JUDY WOODRUFF: He just wrote a book about it.

MARK SHIELDS: He wrote a book about it. And he had to move away from his own book before the book was basically autographed.

I mean, so, I agree with you he had credentials going in, but it’s been a long time. This is a tough sport. Politics is a contact sport. Jack Germond was fond of saying it ain’t beanbag. And I think he may be — a question of accepting an elbow or two.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But you agree with Mark’s initial comment here that this is not representative of most Republicans? They had the most prominent Republicans speaking.

DAVID BROOKS: People show up to this event. It’s become an event where people show up every year.

MARK SHIELDS: Ten thousand.

DAVID BROOKS: But you can never measure anything by what they’re applauding, because this is a group that’s at one wing of the party, a more hard-core, probably more libertarian, traditionally a mixture of older and also college kids who have been comped.

And so this is not where the Republican Party is.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You mean they can come free, so they …

DAVID BROOKS: Right.

And so this — Michele Bachmann fine with this group, Sarah Palin fine. Those people were not nominated. And this is — don’t measure the audience, but pay attention to the speeches.

MARK SHIELDS: I would just add this, that any group that doesn’t invite Chris Christie, the most popular politician in the country, let alone Republican politician, Bob McDonnell, governor of Virginia, who showed great bipartisan skill in getting a transportation bill through, a major plan that required raising taxes, and instead invites Donald Trump, I think it’s — question — you have to question its seriousness and where it is on the political compass.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Let’s talk about the president.

He continued, David, this week this charm offensive, outreach to Congress. Why is he doing this and does it look like it’s working?

DAVID BROOKS: So, why he’s doing it, the cynical explanation, which I would never stoop to, is that he’s a little down in the polls.

The positive implications are, he’s got a new chief of staff, Denis McDonough, who is more of an outreach kind of guy. And also maybe he thinks he can get something done.

And so is it working? I will say, yes, it is. Now, has the lion laid down the lamb? No.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Wait a minute. Which one is the lion and which one is the lamb?

DAVID BROOKS: I will let Mark answer that question. That’s for Mark.

MARK SHIELDS: I’m a taxidermist.

DAVID BROOKS: We have got two jackals, actually, if I’m going to be honest.

But — so, here’s what happened. And a bunch of people I have spoken to over the last week, they have just said, we’re going to have fights, but we’re not going to take them to the nuclear level.

And we’re just going to try — to switch metaphors — hit some singles. We’re not going to do a big tax reform. We’re not going to do a grand bargain, but we’re going to try to get some small budget deals going, and we’re going to make the government a little less dysfunctional, so it’s less impinging on the economy, because you keep hearing more and more these days the economy is ready to take off.

And if we can just get government slightly out of the way for a couple years, we can get some really nice growth, and that will change things up. And I think they are succeeding in denuclearizing our conflicts, no last-minute budget deals, no fiscal cliffs, no debt defaults. Let the economy grow for a change.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What are you hearing?

MARK SHIELDS: Getting government out of the way, I love that. That’s a great one, after what we have been through in this country with absolutely no control. And we just learned again this week that banks too big to fail are even too big to be reprimanded, controlled by the federal government.

But I would say this, Judy. There’s an old line in politics. You dance with the girl who brung you. Barack Obama didn’t do that. Barack Obama, over the past seven years, has gone into hundreds, if not thousands of rooms, people with large egos, people of great accomplishment, people who are quite skeptical toward him, and he went in and he charmed them, charmed them to the point not only that they supported him; they wrote checks for him.

He comes to Washington, and that stopped. He never spent any time, effort or charm on members of Congress. And now, in the twilight of his presidency, he says, well, maybe what worked in Duluth and Des Moines and Detroit and Dallas and all over the country, Beverly Hills, maybe I could even try it on Capitol Hill.

And I would — I think, first of all, the dinner went well with the senators. I would say this. You have got to bring them into the White House. It’s great to go up to the Hill. And the Jefferson Hotel is fine.

But, I mean, you have got to — the White House — nobody talks about going to the White House, you know, without a sense of awe. I’m going to the White House. I met with the president. I don’t mean to drop names.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But would they go if …

MARK SHIELDS: Are you kidding me? Of course they would go.

And I just think once — if you can get conversations going between Republicans and Democrats — I mean, he’s right in saying some people will have trouble supporting anything that I’m for, that they can’t be for it. But I just think, listen, the other stuff wasn’t working, going in and campaigning on an issue in certain areas, and being on TV, and kicking the daylights out of Republicans. That wasn’t working and it was hurting his numbers.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But you’re saying they need to be — he needs to get the parties together, because so far he’s been going to meet with Democrats separately from meeting with Republicans.

MARK SHIELDS: Well, but I think he can be the catalyst for doing that.

But I guess, you know, it can’t be something, like they said to Ron Fournier of the National Journal, wow, this is just a joke. We’re doing this for pretense.

JUDY WOODRUFF: I saw that.

MARK SHIELDS: I mean, no, it’s got to be sustained. Just, it’s not a — it can’t be a one-hit wonder.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, Mark says this is the twilight of his presidency.

DAVID BROOKS: Well, it sort of doesn’t feel like the first year of an administration, like the first few months. It feels kind of exhaustion.

Those of us who — we have interviews in the White House, interviews in Congress. They have differences, not as big as they think. They have a lot of mythology about the other sides. And so just having these meetings would be a good thing, personal relationships.

And so I think we have begun to see a little change in mode, as I say. Secondly, they have created space for some deals, so the people right now, there are eight senators sitting in Capitol Hill doing immigration. They’re making incredible progress, really good progress. And I think that’s part of the tune.

And if I could just defend this idea of getting government out of the way, listen, we have got 24 percent of the economy as the government. We’re not shrinking into Hong Kong wonderland here. But it’s — without question, just in a cyclical sense, uncertainty about Washington, these fiscal catastrophes, these debt ceiling, middle-of-the-night things, that’s had an unnerving effect on investment. And if we could just stop that, that would help the economy.

MARK SHIELDS: Aren’t you the same guy who has championed research, infrastructure, education? Where is that coming from, the private sector?

OK.

DAVID BROOKS: I’m not talking about — I’m not talking about doing all that stuff. I’m talking about…

JUDY WOODRUFF: I’m backing out of this, though. You all, have at it.

DAVID BROOKS: Let’s not be stupid. Let’s not be dysfunctional. You can have good government. I’m all for that, but let’s not have dysfunctional government, which has been so unnerving.

MARK SHIELDS: Do you know anybody who is for dysfunctional government? I mean …

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, I know 435 people on Capitol Hill.

MARK SHIELDS: Who is running on that ticket, OK?

You have another question?

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right. I’m going to wrap this up by asking you about the pope.

The new — the Catholic Church has chosen a new leader, Francis of Argentina, a Jesuit, somebody who is known as a humble leader in the church.

Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I was thrilled.

I found his humility enormously appealing. I love the fact that he has spoken about income inequality, about the sin of the misappropriation of resources in a society, where people are deprived, where there are people who are poor, that that’s an offense against the common decency.

And I just found him — it’s a little bit like Jerry Ford succeeding Richard Nixon. And I don’t mean in anything to Pope Benedict. But there was a sense of grandeur and almost — where there were the Prada red shoes or all the trappings of the pope. And this man just comes into it. And he lives in a simple apartment.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Taxi to the hotel.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes, take a taxi, takes a bus where he — where people can come up and talk to him.

To me, it’s encouraging as a Catholic. My church is hurting from arrogance and from its indifference to the suffering of children that were abused and the inclination of the leadership to protect the institution, rather than the children. And I just — I’m encouraged.

DAVID BROOKS: I was thrilled for Mark.

No, I — so, when your institution is under threat, you feel you have a lot of hostility, you feel things are slipping away, you have got internal problems, there’s a tendency to turn inward and to focus on yourselves.

And one of the things he said — he hasn’t really said that much in public. One of the really nice things he said, he would prefer a church that goes out and has accidents in the street than to be self-referential and sick.

MARK SHIELDS: That’s right.

DAVID BROOKS: And so that’s exactly the right attitude.

When your institution is under assault, you’re feeling like the weight is on it and the history might be flowing away, like the Republican Party, don’t turn inward, go outward. And his instinct I think is exactly right on that.

MARK SHIELDS: David is right.

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

JEFFREY BROWN: 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.

Also online, you can find Kwame Holman’s blog with another take on CPAC and a video profile of one of the conservative activists attending.