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Shields and Brooks on Farm Bill Failure, Obama in Berlin

June 21, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks analyze the week's top political news with Jeffrey Brown, including the failure of the farm bill, the progress of immigration reform in the Senate and its prospects in the House, plus President Barack Obama's speech about nuclear arms in Berlin.
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JEFFREY BROWN: And that brings us to the analysis of Shields and Brooks, syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks.

And the obvious first question is, do you stop for pedestrians?

Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: I do.

I do. And…

JEFFREY BROWN: And, David, I have some pretzels for you.

MARK SHIELDS: I do, because David’s rich. No, no.

I — having been a pedestrian enough myself, I do stop.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, on a more serious — let’s start with immigration. Real movement in the Senate this week, Mark, some new hurdles in the House. What’s going on?

MARK SHIELDS: New hurdles in the House are this, that the House is out of control, that the leadership has lost control in the House.

And what we basically have is a situation, Jeffrey, that is very analogous to where the Democrats were in the 1970s and 1980s. Between 1968 and 1992, the Democrats had five presidential elections in which they averaged getting 17 percent of the electoral votes and carrying an average of eight states.

They lost — they got one state in two elections, in ’72 and ’84. But in all that time, they had the House. And so members of the Democratic House didn’t really care. It would be nice to win the White House, but they didn’t care. The Republicans right now are in that position. They are — they have the House. That’s all they care about, the House members care about.

And they are indifferent to the plight, as expressed by Lindsey Graham, the Republican senator from South Carolina, if we don’t do something on immigration, if we don’t reform ourselves, if we don’t enable ourselves as a party, the Republicans, to be able to speak to Latino voters, we’re dead in 2016.

And I think that right now is falling on deaf ears among House Republicans.

JEFFREY BROWN: Do you see that when it comes to immigration?

DAVID BROOKS: Semi-deaf. Semi-deaf.

JEFFREY BROWN: Semi-deaf.

DAVID BROOKS: So what happened this week was the debate got down, funneled down to its core issue. There was a lot of talk in previous weeks that it’s all about border security, border security. We had this amendment in the Senate to really spend as much as humanly possible on border security. I’m not sure how much good it will do, but we’re certainly spending a lot of money on everything down there.

So then it shifts to the core issue. And you have seen the debate even in the last couple days shift, which is the — according to the Congressional Budget Office report, right now, we’re scheduled to have I think about 20 million people enter the country just under current law. This will increase it another 16 million.

So we will have 36 million new people in this country over the next 20 years. That will fundamentally change the nature of the country. That’s a population as large as Canada. And so that’s really what this debate is about. All the other stuff is surface for that.

Do we want to have that many new people from different parts of the world? Will it change the character of the country? Will it change the social fabric? To me, that’s what the debate is about.

JEFFREY BROWN: But that’s a substantive debate. You’re talking about a political breakdown that you see.

MARK SHIELDS: I really think so. And David’s right about what they did in the Senate . You can’t solve a problem by throwing money at it, but you can assemble a Senate majority by throwing money at it.

They throw $30 billion dollars that we don’t have at this problem. And what it did, it got northern border senators now on board from North Dakota, Maine. All of a sudden, we’re going to keep Dan Aykroyd and John Candy and Martin Short and Leslie Nielsen, all those dangerous Canadian subversive humorists …

… out of this country.

DAVID BROOKS: Are all Canadians that funny?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, those are four who are pretty …

… funny.

But so — no, that’s really what they have done. And it can be helpful. It’s what I would call a border surge, it’s been called. And I think that’s what you’re seeing. We have doubled the number of border agents, Jeffrey, in the past 10 years, and now we’re going to add thousands more.

DAVID BROOKS: On the politics of it, just the structure of the House, clearly in this farm bill, there was a revolt against the leader.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes.

DAVID BROOKS: Will there be a similar revolt on immigration? Possible, but possibly not.

There could be a lot of Republicans who oppose the bill because of their own district, their own conviction, but who know, for the reasons Lindsey Graham described, the party has to get this done. And so they could say, I’m opposed, but I’m going to let you, Mr. Speaker, take this to the floor. I’m not going to really block it, even though I …

JEFFREY BROWN: You raised the farm bill, though, so pick up on that, because that’s one — that was a surprise to some degree because that’s one that usually gets — goes through fairly easily.

MARK SHIELDS: That’s exactly right.

DAVID BROOKS: Well, it’s money for everybody. So it’s money for rural America, it’s money for corporations, it’s money for the poor. It’s a lot of money for a lot of different things.

And so a lot — a number of Republicans said, enough is enough. This is big spending as usual and we’re against it. And on the substance, I’m about a third with them. The big bulk of the money is food stamps, which has radically increased. The number of people on food stamps has just exploded in the last couple years. Nonetheless, when you look at the data, the people who are getting food stamps deserve to get food stamps.

I think that’s basically true. Nonetheless, there are other parts of the bill that are really unattractive, sugar subsidies, commodity price supports, crop insurance. That’s corporate welfare. And so I have some sympathy for them. But the two elements here are the substance of it, no more business as usual, and the politics of it, a very in-your-face rebuke of the speaker.

JEFFREY BROWN: And that’s another example of what you’re talking about?

MARK SHIELDS: Exactly.

I mean, the primary purpose of an agriculture bill, A., is to food — feed hungry people and to make sure that farmers and farmworkers are lifted up out of poverty and to protect the environment and the land. That ought to be it. And David is right. There are corporate subsidies in there. But — and he’s absolutely right about the food stamps.

People who are getting food stamps need food stamps. This country has through a wrenching economic experience. But the biggest surprise is to me is that the leadership was surprised, the House leadership. Leadership should never be surprised.

JEFFREY BROWN: John Boehner.

MARK SHIELDS: John Boehner. Eric Cantor, the House majority leader, voted for an amendment, a punitive amendment on food stamps, that he had been warned would cost them the coalition.

And now he then turned around and said, oh, it’s all Nancy Pelosi fault. They lost 62 House Republicans. You can’t lose that many on your own side on a procedural vote as to whether you’re going to bring up the legislation. It was a terrible blow to the speaker, a terrible blow to the leadership. And I just think it’s — and to the coalition.

There had always been a great coalition between urban liberals and rural conservatives that had worked together to pass the farm bill in the past, and that is obviously not the case.

DAVID BROOKS: One of the interesting reasons it is not the case is because even rural voters have decided, OK, the money is for us, but we’d rather cut spending.

And so the debt as an issue, even in rural America, the money that is going to rural America, people would rather cut spending than continue with their subsidies.

JEFFREY BROWN: But this question of what’s happening with the Republicans is a running theme here at this table for a number of years, particularly with Tea Party members coming in, the new class of members coming in, and then John Boehner’s leadership.

DAVID BROOKS: Right.

And we saw — we have seen this before in the budget negotiations. If you remember, Boehner and Obama were engaged in negotiations. Boehner walks out and decides he is going to have something called “Plan B,” which is going be optioned. His own party destroys that.

And so we have been here before. And, basically, you have a group of a large number of people, especially those elected in the last couple elections, who say my loyalty is not to the leader of my party. It’s not to Washington. It’s to — I have an oppositional attitude toward all this, and they’re eager for chances to show that.

And this was a chance.

JEFFREY BROWN: And is it a threat to John Boehner?

MARK SHIELDS: It’s a threat to John Boehner.

It’s a — these are people, let’s be very frank about it, whose districts overwhelmingly do not have Latino voters. I mean, that’s part of the reality. So they’re not being responsive on — in terms of immigration, the fact that they have constituents who are concerned in this sense.

It is a problem that John Boehner — John Boehner three times already has violated what the Hastert rule is. The Hastert rule, named for Speaker Dennis Hastert, was that you only bring up legislation when you’re in control of the House when a majority of your own caucus is on board in support of it.

He three times, on relief for Hurricane Sandy victims, on the Violence Against Women Act, and on the fiscal cliff at the beginning of the session, he three times brought up legislation and passed it with a minority of his own party and Democrats providing the margin of victory.

And, you know, that — I think, in all three cases, it was in the interest of the nation, certainly it was in the interest of the party not to go on record against violence and women and not to be against Hurricane Sandy victims, but it does jeopardize his leadership, or his — I think his speakership. I think he’s under siege right now.

DAVID BROOKS: It’s hard to believe there’s anybody else who could be doing any better.

MARK SHIELDS: I agree.

DAVID BROOKS: This is in the structure of the party right now. And we’re going to have a presidential election, and somebody like Rand Paul will represent a certain wing of the party, and maybe something like Marco Rubio or somebody else will represent the other wing.

And once again, it will be argued out. But that structure has yet to be resolved within the party. I suspect the Marco Rubio establishment side is still going to win at the end of the day.

MARK SHIELDS: And, earlier, when I mentioned the Democrats lost all those elections, save one, the 1976, after the Republican vice president had resigned, rather than be convicted of crime, and the Republican president had resigned, conviction of the Senate pending, they won one election in all that time.

The House didn’t do anything, until all of a sudden it looked like the House might be in jeopardy. And that’s the problem with the Republican House is just exactly like the Democratic House was then. They were winning. And they were — they wanted the national party to win, but they continued to apply litmus tests.

They had to pass a labor test, a teachers test, an environmental test, a women’s test, a gay test, which meant all those caucuses …

DAVID BROOKS: It’s corrupting to have a majority, but no actual power, because they can’t actually get anything passed because they don’t control the White House or the other body. But they have a majority, and so that leads to this kind of fight.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, last minutes, I just want to go overseas …

MARK SHIELDS: Sure.

JEFFREY BROWN: … because the president was overseas this week at the G-8 summit and in Berlin giving a speech.

What did you make of his — and then he ran into Vladimir Putin, all kinds of thing this week.

DAVID BROOKS: Right.

JEFFREY BROWN: What did you see happening?

DAVID BROOKS: I confess I found myself a little underwhelmed by the speech. I don’t think it was up to the problems we have.

And this is a general thought I have about politics these days, especially in global affairs. There are all these gigantic, very amorphous, extremely difficult issues, the Arab spring, globalization, the decline of authoritarian governments around the world, global warming. And these are just epic of size.

And I’m not sure we have solutions big enough for them. And, therefore, we’re sort of fuddling around. And so when I looked at the president’s speech, there’s some worthy nuclear initiatives. In Syria, we’re probably getting in enough to make ourselves semi-responsible, without actually making any difference.

And so there’s a lot of little tepid gestures, and some of them are very sensible. I think the Syria gesture is probably sensible, but, somehow, it doesn’t feel up to the moment. And that was my general action to speech in Berlin and to the whole trip really.

JEFFREY BROWN: What did you see, especially in that speech at the Brandenburg Gate, right, which has all kinds of symbolic power too?

MARK SHIELDS: No, exactly.

First, on Putin, he really is writing a book, Dale Carnegie was wrong.

He has to be one of at least two or three least pleasant people, I mean, the body language, everybody about him.

JEFFREY BROWN: He does let you know what he’s thinking, doesn’t he?

MARK SHIELDS: Yes, he’s not a great poker player.

And I will tell you, and I felt for the president trying to get — forge any kind of relationship with him or cooperation. As far as the Brandenburg Gate, that, to me, it’s such a marvelous icon. It really is, and it’s — there’s so much history to it. But you don’t do that speech before 4,500 people, and especially when you have got footage.

I mean, you have got footage of President Obama as a candidate getting 200,000 people in Berlin just five years ago, to say nothing of the President Kennedy “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech, or President Reagan’s “Tear down that wall” speech.

I mean, just the idea — the first rule of an advance man in politics is, you always have a crowd bigger than the room, so it looks that there’s enthusiasm and overflow. And this didn’t. I do think the president addressed the subject that’s of concern to the Germans, and that’s loose nuclear and Russia’s problem with them. And he is on the defensive, quite frankly, on the NSA listening.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Mark Shields, David Brooks, as always, thank you very much.

MARK SHIELDS: Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: And every Friday, Mark and David show a slightly different side, if you can imagine, talking about the sport of politics and the politics of sport with Hari in our newsroom. Tonight, they took your questions live, discussing everything from climate change to songs they love.

Stop laughing while I’m saying this.

Here’s a sneak preview, a clip where they weigh in on which cities have the best baseball stadiums.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Best ballpark to watch a baseball game?

MARK SHIELDS: I’m going to be a total heretic here, and I should say Fenway and Camden Yards, and I think the Colorado Rockies stadium …

HARI SREENIVASAN: Yes, it’s a beautiful stadium.

MARK SHIELDS: … is the best stadium I have ever been in. Why? Because when you go to the stands to get a Coke or a hot dog or a beer, the sight lines are such that you can watch the game while you’re there. And that to me is as viewer-friendly and fan-friendly a place as you are going to find.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. I like that stadium. The people are too nice, though. I would like a little tension in the …

A little tension in the crowd.

MARK SHIELDS: Well, the higher …

… the nicer…

DAVID BROOKS: That, and the Arizona Diamondbacks have a fantastic stadium, again, a little too nice.

HARI SREENIVASAN: It’s already high altitudes, so the nose bleeds …

DAVID BROOKS: I’m going with the Pittsburgh Pirates stadium.

… downtown stadium.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Really, Pirates stadium?

MARK SHIELDS: You know, and I have never been there, and I have heard nothing but good things about it.

DAVID BROOKS: Great stadium. Great stadium.

JEFFREY BROWN: You can watch and you will want to watch the entire special Doubleheader on our website. It will be posted at the top of the Rundown later tonight.