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Shields and Brooks Discuss Shifting Values on Gay Marriage, Gun Control

March 29, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks analyze the week's political news with Judy Woodruff, including the Supreme Court examination of same-sex marriage laws and the societal and political sea change on that issue, plus why the push for new gun control legislation may be losing momentum.
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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, who is with us from New York tonight.

Gentlemen, welcome.

MARK SHIELDS: Good evening.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Mark, all eyes this week on the Supreme Court, two cases, all eyes on same-sex marriage, two sets of arguments. What do you see the role of public opinion in all this as a backdrop?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, Mr. Dunne said the Supreme Court follows the election returns.

And if that is the case, Judy, I have never seen an issue move with this kind of velocity. Just think about this. Two short presidential elections ago, the Republicans’ ace in the hole was to put 11 ballot questions on 11 different states opposing same-sex marriage, in hopes of turning out religiously conservative voters, and who would vote then for President Bush.

The conventional wisdom is that Ohio, where one of the ballot issues was on, that was the key to turning the state from John Kerry, the Democrat, and the White House from John Kerry, the Democrat, to George W. Bush, the Republican. It was 60 to 29 Americans opposed same-sex marriage. All the intensity, all the passion was on the other side.

That has done a total, complete turn. If you want to see it crystallized, less than a year ago, the president of the United States, a liberal Democratic president of the United States’ position was, he was in favor of civil unions. Today, that is now the safe harbor political position for Republicans.

That’s how quickly it’s changed. And the president, of course, is an advocate of same-sex marriage, having come to that position after his vice president took it first.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, David, why has this change happened so fast?

DAVID BROOKS: Because it’s about obligations.

We have a language in this country that we have become accustomed to, which is the language of rights and freedom. But gay marriages and marriage in general is not about rights and freedom. It’s about limiting your freedom, going into a relationship which limits the contingency of your relationship, limits your ability to choose and be free.

It’s about creating a set of obligations. And I think most Americans do believe that life is best lived within a series of relationships that are reasonably firm and fixed. And once gay and lesbian issues became about marriage, once it became about fixing yourself down in a permanent relationship, then that was going to be something that was going to appeal to a lot of people.

And a lot of Americans had the mistaken notion that the gay life was about bath house culture and gay bars. And I think they — that held them back. But once it became clear that what gays and lesbians, what a lot of them wanted was marriage, which is a pretty bourgeois, mainstream institution, then the door was swung open and there was no turning back. And I think that is basically what is happening.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, over time, Mark, public opinion has shifted, but then in the course of one week, you had, what, half-a-dozen Democratic senators announcing a change of heart.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes. That reminded me of the old French general who said, there go my people. I must follow them, for I am their leader.

I mean, it just comes down — it comes down to that.

There was a real — there’s been a real switch, Judy. Now, some of them individual cases, and there are individual reasons why people change. And their conscience obviously is a part of it, but two of them were just reelected, Jon Tester in Montana and Claire McCaskill in Missouri.

So, they have six years. They have got history on their side, momentum seemingly. The one aberration in that whole crowd is Kay Hagan. Kay Hagan is a first-term Democratic senator from North Carolina. She’s got a tough race. The Republicans are out to get her in a state that Barack Obama carried by 14,000 votes in 2008, and then the only battleground state he lost in 2012.

And her own state, there was a referendum question in May of 2012; 61 percent voted against same-sex marriage. She came out for it. I mean, this will be the litmus test. If she wins and with the support of people who believe in same-sex marriage — and I think David is absolutely right.

I mean, the only people who want to get married in this country right now are gays and lesbians.

I mean, if you think about it, marriage — no, seriously. Marriage has declined. People are waiting longer, fewer people getting married. And all they really wanted was basically what everybody else has.

It wasn’t some special privilege, a special right that they were seeking.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But, David, you don’t see a similar rush, a change of heart on the part of Republicans.

DAVID BROOKS: Well, you know, there’s been some movement.

I mean, Rob Portman — there’s been a lot of movement among non-elected Republicans, I would say. There has been some movement among elected Republicans. And, you know, they’re from red states, and so there’s going to be a difference of opinion about that.

But I do think, eventually, you are going to see a movement. And the one thing I would say there has been, if not movement on necessarily what position you’re going to take, there has been a decline in salience. I do think that if you look at the various conservative organizations, there’s still a firm pro-life movement, and opinion on abortion has not shifted.

Opinion on abortion, if anything, has shifted slightly to the right. But the number of people who really want to get engaged in the gay marriage issues is just down. And I think, at the CPAC meeting, they had a special meeting about trying to resist the shift toward gay marriage, and it was very sparsely attended. And so I just think …

JUDY WOODRUFF: But, David — I didn’t mean to interrupt, but you do hear this argument out there that if the court were to legalize gay marriage across the country, that there could be a backlash.

DAVID BROOKS: I think that’s a fear, that it becomes Roe v. Wade-like.

And I guess I have thought about that a lot over the last week, and I think it — probably not likely to happen. I think it’s probably the momentum is such that if the court did move aggressively, maybe there would be some pushback, but I think it’s not like the abortion issue and we shouldn’t draw that parallel.

I think it’s really pretty much cemented. The one thing I will say about the court, of it — is, though, to the extent that we can understand what they’re thinking on the basis of oral argument, I really got a sense reading about it was the really hesitancy on the part of most members of the court to interfere with the flow of public opinion, a real sense that public opinion is shifting so much, they don’t know how to insert themselves into it, and, given their druthers, a lot of them, at least, several of them at least, would just like to stay out and are looking for an avenue to stay out, and not interfere with the flow.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How do you see that?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I — Judy, I think that it is irrefutable that Roe v. Wade remains, 40 years after the decision, an open wound in the body politic of the United States. It is unresolved.

The questions may be unresolvable. They aren’t the same as same-sex marriage. But I think it’s an admonition and a warning to our political system and our judicial system that it is — we’re far better off when we work our political will through the legislative process, through the political process.

We were on our way in the early 70s to reaching state laws. We’re changing on abortion. And as Justice Ginsburg herself pointed out, you know, with one fell swoop, that single decision of the Supreme Court in Roe v. Wade, they repealed all the abortion laws in the country. They made it illegal. And …

JUDY WOODRUFF: And Justice Ginsburg …

MARK SHIELDS: Justice Ginsburg.

JUDY WOODRUFF: … was talking about this, not — so a liberal justice saying …

MARK SHIELDS: A liberal justice, that’s right.

JUDY WOODRUFF: … the court may have moved too quickly.

MARK SHIELDS: May have moved — I think it did. And it remains unresolved.

And, you know, a political punching bag became running against judges, beating up judges, I mean, which is not, again, good for our system. And I don’t think it’s comparable to Brown vs. Board of Education, because in Brown vs. Board of Education, we had a national ill that was going unaddressed in the states and jurisdictions in which it was a problem in the 1950s. And, therefore, the court had to intervene.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Change of topic, gun control legislation.

David, we are now, I guess, three-and-a-half months past Sandy Hook, the terrible shootings, 20 children, six adults, not to mention the other — the other mass shootings in this country. Yesterday, the president came out and said shame on us if there has been a slowing of the momentum to do something about gun violence.

Where do you see that right now, that issue, and Congress’ disposition to do something about it?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, there’s been a slowing of momentum.

The polls have shifted back toward where they were pre-Sandy Hook level. I think it’s why they acknowledged that the assault weapon ban is gone. That’s not going to pass. The magazine clip limitation, which I thought actually had a better chance, the conventional wisdom I guess now is that is probably not going anywhere. Now the fight is over the background checks and some of the other things like the gun trafficking laws.

And so it’s now down to that. And so I think what’s happened is the president, I think, even — and I understand the heartfelt speech he gave yesterday. But I think what wasn’t developed was a red state strategy, a strategy to win over some of the momentum that existed among some Republicans, but especially among red state Democrats, to try to win them over to this, and to win public opinion in those states over to this.

And that — that strategy was never quite developed. And so, for a lot of senators from those states, it’s just — the political pressure is all on the other side. It’s all on the Second Amendment side. And so that — that was sacrificed. And I’m not sure the president did anything yesterday to really turn that around.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Was that a mistake? And how would you have done that?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I — I’m not sure what David is recommending in the way of a strategy to red state Republicans, to the — the only Republican, it seemed, that was available to Joe Manchin, the Democrat from West Virginia, who has a pro-NRA record, and was quite personally and publicly moved by what happened in Connecticut, was Mark Kirk of Illinois, who is not really seen as an NRA kind of Republican.

So I’m not sure that was available. I thought, yesterday, that we saw the unscripted president. I mean, I thought that was real emotion coming through that he was expressing. And shame on us if in fact it does happen.

You know, Judy, people say the country has moved left on same-sex marriage. We have moved right on gun control. I mean, 20 years ago in this country, more than 70 percent of people were for stricter gun control laws. And that is down basically in the 40 percent range now. And the only time we get a blip is after a Columbine or after a Tucson, after a mass shooting and mass deaths.

But we had 154 cartridges spent …

JUDY WOODRUFF: Information came out yesterday about …

MARK SHIELDS: … in less than five minutes in that classroom, those classrooms in Newtown.

And, to me, if you can’t make a case for magazines, I mean, I don’t know at what point, you know, you just say reason has to prevail.

JUDY WOODRUFF: David, what would you have done? What argument should the administration have made in these red states?

DAVID BROOKS: I would have included the gun control stuff like the assault weapons ban. Or — well, I might have thrown that out, because that really had no chance, but the magazine clips, I would have included that, the background check.

I would have included that in a broad anti-homicide agenda. And that agenda really would have highlighted the things we do know works to reduce homicides, a lot different sorts of policing, giving — holding local police officials accountable for homicide rates in their areas, focusing on those few parts of the country where homicide rates are very high, a broad series of legislation, for example, if you are living with someone who has a psychiatric problem, an illness, holding you legally accountable for them not being able to get guns, making it a norm that you report people who you think may have sort of homicidal urges, the way people are reporting people who may commit child abuse.

So I would have wrapped it in a much broader package, emphasizing some of the police stuff, which people in the Republican side are much happier with. And I would have done that both for political reasons to win over the red states and also for substantive reasons, because if the evidence is reasonably clear, a lot of the gun control legislation can do limited good.

We have a lot of different little things that can do limited goods. But we have no thing that can totally transform and totally do maximum good. And so I would have had a much broader agenda with a lot of little things that maybe can contribute to a solution, but which — we just don’t have a big magic weapon here to control gun violence. So, you got to do a lot of little things all at once.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We have to leave it there.

David Brooks, Mark Shields, we thank you both. Tough subject.

MARK SHIELDS: Thank you, Judy.