TOPICS > Politics

Shields and Gerson Discuss GOP Hold Up on Hagel, Looming Sequester

February 15, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson discuss public opinion versus the political battle on gun control, Congress heading home without a 'sequester' deal, the filibuster to block Chuck Hagel's nomination vote and takeaways from President Obama's State of the Union.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And to the analysis of Shields and Gerson. That is syndicated columnist Mark Shields and Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson. David Brooks is away this week.

Welcome, gentlemen.

So, picking up, Mark, on what we just heard Lynn Sweet telling Margaret about what the president was saying today, going to Chicago, his hometown, how effective is it for him to be going before big audiences on this very political question of gun control?

MARK SHIELDS: I think that it was certainly the highlight emotionally of the State of the Union speech. I think it connected simply people in that room, but beyond that room. And I think it can only be helpful to the effort.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Does it — does it seem, Michael, that his chances are improving because he — every time he goes out and makes a speech like this?

MICHAEL GERSON: Well, I think he has one advantage on this issue, which is what he is proposing, a vote on these three measures, is quite reasonable. That’s not an ideologically ambitious task here.

This debate has swung so far one direction that even these incremental, prudent measures are seen as controversial. And I think he has every right to push for an up-or-down vote on these issues. I think he’s most likely to make progress on the background checks. But this, I think, is a strong issue for him.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, it clearly was emotional — as you suggested, Mark, emotional high point of the State of the Union.

What other — was there another takeaway from the president’s State of the Union speech?

MARK SHIELDS: The president — there has only been one memorable State of the Union speech in my lifetime — and that was FDR’s 1941 four freedom speech — that really went on and listed in the history books.

I thought the president’s proposals, particularly for preschool education, and it’s sort of directed to helping those less fortunate, I thought his idea on high school, that there be training and partnership, training for manufacturing, skilled jobs, sort of abandoning or putting aside the idea that everybody has to go to college for four years, I thought that was realistic. I thought it showed forward-looking.

But there wasn’t an overarching theme or a galvanizing element to it. If there was, I missed it, anyway.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Do you agree, nothing overarching? What did you take away from it?

MICHAEL GERSON: Oh, I agree with that. The shelf life of these speeches, of State of the Unions, is pretty short. They are written for the moment. They don’t last too much beyond it.

I think the tone of the speech was significantly different from the inaugural address, which was much more aggressive in ideological tone. There were far fewer straw men in this speech. I think that he made genuine outreach on an issue like immigration.

You know, instead of using that as a wedge issue and trying to gain political gain from it, he essentially gave Marco Rubio’s talking points in the speech. He gave Republicans a lot of cover. He was very strong on enforcement, so this tone was significantly different than the inaugural.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, speaking of Marco Rubio, he came after — in fact, there were two Republican responses. It was senator Rubio, and then Rand Paul gave the Tea Party response.


Did the Republican — often, the response, the Republican or the other party response, doesn’t get a lot of attention. Was this one different? Did it have an impact?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, there was more curiosity because of Marco Rubio. And I think the speech could be boiled down to, I am not Mitt Romney. I wasn’t born to privilege, I wasn’t born to power, I wasn’t born to affluence or influence. I come from very humble origins. And this is who I am. And these are my values.

I didn’t think it was a — I think he is a very strong speaker and probably a very good messenger. I thought it was a very pedestrian message.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Remembered for that leaning over to get a drink of water.

MARK SHIELDS: Well, to me, that was — the way he recouped that — that is how the speech will be remembered, is the darting for the Poland Spring.

And the fact that he could laugh at himself the next day by showing up with a Poland Spring reminded me of Bill Clinton bailing himself out after the disastrous 1988 nominating speech of Michael Dukakis, which went on endlessly. And the next night on the — two nights later on “The Tonight Show,” Bill Clinton said that wasn’t the best hour of my life. It was probably not even the best hour-and-a-half.

MARK SHIELDS: And the fact that he could laugh at himself, I think Rubio may have bailed himself out.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Political careers are often shaped by these responses, aren’t they?

MICHAEL GERSON: No, I agree with that. And he did recover well.

You know, I don’t think his career is ended by an epic episode of dry mouth. Mark often has that effect on me, actually.

MICHAEL GERSON: But I would say that I agree with Mark that he reframed the Republican story in this speech, given his own biography.

He didn’t really reframe the Republican philosophy. It was very much small government vs. big government. It’s what we have heard for a long time. I think Republicans are going to have to have more than a bootstraps message. They’re going to have to define a limited, but active role of government to help people gain the skills they need to compete in the modern economy.

He needs to, in order to reformat the Republican message, have that type of message, but he’s got time. The good thing is he has time.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, what do we read from the fact, Michael and Mark, that there, as we said, not one, but two Republican responses? The other one was Rand Paul, Tea Party.

I mean, obviously, this is just the tip of the iceberg, but what does it say about the Republican Party right now?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I think the Republican Party is going through a very difficult period.

And just to give you sort of a quick history lesson, Joe Lieberman was Democratic senator, was the nominee for vice president in 2000. In 2007, he created a great — committed a great apostate act. He endorsed John McCain for president as a Republican. He went to the Republican Convention, where he criticized, censured the Democratic nominee, Barack Obama, and endorsed McCain and Sarah Palin.

And when — Joe then campaigned all 2008 with McCain, comes back to the Senate, and the Senate Democrats make him the chairman of a standing committee. Contrast that with Chuck Hagel, 84 percent Americans for Conservative Action voting record throughout his entire career, voted for the Bush tax cuts, voted for the war in Iraq, voted against No Child Left Behind, but was a small government conservative.

And Republicans right now, particularly the Tea Party, are not looking for converts, like the Democrats were with Joe Lieberman. They’re looking for heretics. And they see in Chuck Hagel, who never endorsed Barack Obama, was friendly with him, traveled with him, but didn’t endorse him, they see this terrible heretic.

And it’s really — I think that is where the Republicans are right now. They are looking for heretics, instead of converts. And I think it’s apparent in the Tea Party. But I think it’s apparent in the ranks of the party, the entire ranks of the party.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, you have effectively turned the corner to the next thing I wanted to ask you about, and this is the Hagel confirmation.

The Republicans, I gather, we’re told, it is unprecedented, blocking the nomination — or the confirmation so far of the man President Obama wants to be his defense secretary.

MICHAEL GERSON: Well, it’s not quite unprecedented for a Cabinet secretary. It is for a defense secretary.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Defense secretary.


JUDY WOODRUFF: And that is certainly the case.

Sen. Reid was involved in the most recent episode of blocking a Cabinet secretary with 60 votes, which was Dirk Kempthorne in 2006.

MARK SHIELDS: Confirmed on voice vote.

MICHAEL GERSON: Right. Yes. No, he eventually did, after he got what he wanted for Nevada in that case.

MICHAEL GERSON: These things are not — politics is not unprecedented in the nomination process.

Chuck Hagel’s problem here is, first of all, that he has some problematic views, from a Republican perspective, on Iran, Israel and what he calls the Jewish lobby. He also didn’t do well in his own confirmation hearing, looked dazed and confused in his own — and made some serious gaffes.

All that said, this is just a delay in the vote. John McCain has — and others have promised to support an up-or-down vote on Hagel. He will be confirmed, which I think is an affirmation the president generally gets his choice for a nominee, even if they are a second-rate nominee.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Does somebody pay the price, though, for all this?

MARK SHIELDS: Yes. No, I think — I think that John McCain has paid a price already this week. Judy, he said at the beginning of the week that Chuck Hagel had answered all the queries that were put before him.

Then he berated Ted Cruz for — the senator from Texas, for suggesting that Hagel may have had some money from North Korea, or Iran, with absolutely — or Saudi Arabia — with absolutely no basis in fact.

I mean, now the charge, and Republicans have been talking about this and answering questions about it, that the Friends of Hamas have endorsed Chuck Hagel. I mean, there is no Friends of Hamas. Nobody can find them. There is no such organization.

And Rand Paul is saying, if this is true, it is a very serious thing. It is a terrible, terrible chapter. Bill Cohen, Republican secretary of defense …

JUDY WOODRUFF: Terrible for whom?

MARK SHIELDS: For the country, and — but for the Republican Party. They are going through a terrible exercise.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Do you agree the Republicans are hurt over this episode?

MICHAEL GERSON: I think in the short term, not the long term.

But I would say there is a serious problem here, that the next secretary of defense is going to have to sell defense cuts to the Republicans. And there is not much trust that Chuck Hagel has with Republicans, having made a second career attacking his party after he left government.

I think that that — this is a strange choice in order to do that particular purpose.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, meanwhile, we are just, what, two weeks away, Mark, from across-the-board budget cuts taking effect, the so-called sequester.

It would be cuts in the domestic spending, cuts, $85 billion dollars, in both domestic and defense, military spending. Congress has left town for more than a week. What is going to happen?

MARK SHIELDS: The sequester will set in on the 1st of March.


MARK SHIELDS: And the cuts will come, and we will feel it, because the administration will be in the position of selecting — to some degree controlling where those cuts are, although it’s limited by the legislation.

But they will be felt by people. And there will be dislocation. There will be discomfort and there will be suffering. And the CBO has predicted, Judy, if it goes through, the sequester goes through, it could cut the growth, economic growth in the country by one half this year. So, I mean, they are …

JUDY WOODRUFF: So it happens and then what?

MICHAEL GERSON: I mean, we have — all sides are responsible for this in approving it. All sides seem resigned to it. But if you look at it from the outside, it’s just insane. It’s crazy to make across-the-board cuts that …

JUDY WOODRUFF: Because each side is blaming the other. Republicans are saying it is the president’s fault, the president …


And then — but we enter a process by which we then immediately embark, once this goes in, the sequester goes in, on another economic debate on the continuing resolution, which is at the end of March.

And the argument, that then becomes the big economic argument. The question is whether you might be able to fold in the sequester and the continuing resolution and do something that moves beyond both of them.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But if you are an ordinary American, average person sitting out there listening to all this, are you affected by this, Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: Sure, well, if you fly. If you have special education students, $6.6 million dollars will be touched by laying off teachers, some 7,600 teachers and teachers aides. You will be …

JUDY WOODRUFF: Why? You mean air traffic control?

MARK SHIELDS: Air traffic controllers that will be affected. They will be affected in Head Start departments, in community health centers, Judy. I mean, sure.

MICHAEL GERSON: By the way, 165,000 less people will go on AIDS treatment internationally because of these kind of sequesters. This is an abdication of moral decision-making by the part of the Congress. And it is hard to justify.

MARK SHIELDS: The one — the one big difference is I — and maybe Michael and I don’t disagree on this, and that is, I think the Republicans are going into this fight unilaterally disarmed.

They are — the Republicans in Congress are at their lowest point in the history of the Wall Street Journal/NBC poll. And I just think they’re — in the battle of public opinion, they’re going to be at an enormous — Congress is always at a disadvantage with a president in a situation like this, who is the one person who speaks for the entire nation, in most people’s eyes.

And I just think the Republicans are in a terrible, terrible position. But I don’t think Speaker Boehner has an option.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The clock is ticking, two weeks to go. We shall see.

Mark Shields, Michael Gerson, thank you both.

MARK SHIELDS: Thank you.


JEFFREY BROWN: And we’d like you to join another conversation about a topic that was hotly debated here in Washington and around the country a half-century ago. It’s the Voting Rights Act. And as the Supreme Court now reexamines it, we embark on an oral history project, and you can help.

NewsHour political editor Christina Bellantoni explains.

CHRISTINA BELLANTONI: For 48 years, it’s been a cornerstone of the civil rights movement. The NewsHour is looking back at the Voting Rights Act of 1965 this month, as the Supreme Court hears a case challenging its constitutionality.

Now we want to hear from you about when the act passed. What happened? What changed in your community? What do you remember? Some of you have already called our oral history hot line.

MAN: On Aug. the 8th, 1965, I was an attorney with the Civil Rights Division of the United States Department of Justice.

MAN: I was registering voters with Martin Luther King’s organization.

WOMAN: Fourteen of us ran an old black Catholic school in the segregated school of the New Orleans area. We, all 14 of us, sat in the gallery listening to Sen. Long, who lived in our own town, filibuster the law. But freedom won that day.

CHRISTINA BELLANTONI: Please tell us your story. You can call 703-594-6PBS, or visit our website at We may use your recording online or on the air as part of our upcoming coverage.