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Shields and Brooks on Christie’s scandal tolerance, Gates’ war stories

January 10, 2014 at 12:00 AM EDT
Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks join Judy Woodruff to discuss the week's top news, including the possible fallout of the "cheap political trick" that shut down traffic in New Jersey, a new memoir by former Defense Secretary Gates and lessons from the nation's 50 year war on poverty.
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TRANSCRIPT

JUDY WOODRUFF: And to the analysis of Shields and Brooks. That’s syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks.

Welcome, gentlemen. It’s Friday.

So let’s start with the spectacle New Jersey, Republican Governor Chris Christie in hot water over a, apparently, Mark, deliberately arranged traffic jam done in retribution for political enemies, people who didn’t vote for him. What — what do you make of this? Why is it getting so much attention?

MARK SHIELDS: It’s getting so much attention because he is the de facto front-runner in many people’s minds for the Republican nomination. Certainly, Democrats see him as the most formidable potential nominee at this point in 2016 on the Republican side.

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But, Judy, this is a story that plays to his greatest strength and becomes his greatest vulnerability, in my sense. Chris Christie crystallized as a national figure August 26, 2011. He stood on the beach as Hurricane Irene thundered down upon the Jersey Shore. And there were some sunbathers who refused to go.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Hurricane Sandy.

MARK SHIELDS: No, Hurricane Irene, 2011.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Oh, this is another one. This is 2011.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes, this is 2011.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Thank you.

MARK SHIELDS: OK.

And he went — they refused to leave, in spite the threats and the warnings, and everything else. And Chris Christie went on television and said, get the hell off the beach. Get out, get in your car, the sun is down, it’s 4:30. You have got all the tan you have got.

It was just one of those moments that was just so real. And this was what he was. He was a no-nonsense guy. He was a take-charge, I’m in control guy, roll up your sleeves.

And this, the only defense he has is, he was detached, he was disengaged, he didn’t know. And instead of the naturalness of that language, his language yesterday in the press conference was that of the victim, you know, that he was betrayed by those whom he trusted.

And yet he didn’t once express real, genuine, authentic Chris Christie concern for the people whose lives were really disrupted, I mean, thousands of people who missed appointments, who missed funerals, who missed business opportunities, who missed their chance to get their kids to school.

And it was a — it was a lousy act. And it was a ruthless act. it wasn’t — this isn’t hardball politics, where you take David’s pet project and don’t fund it. This is dislocating thousands of people and a cheap political trick. And if he didn’t know about it, the people he trusted the most, brought in, and he was uncurious about, I think it raises serious questions about him.

And the most important thing is that nobody has come to his defense, nobody. I mean, Republicans haven’t come to his defense. And Democrats are happy to see him stew right now.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Raises serious questions?

DAVID BROOKS: Here I come. Here I come to his defense.

(LAUGHTER)

MARK SHIELDS: OK.

DAVID BROOKS: No, I — some of that, I agree with. He should have expressed more regret about the people who were inconvenienced.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes.

DAVID BROOKS: It should be said also the level of small-minded petulance that exists in politics is never to be underestimated.

People do nasty, cheap stuff all the time, because they are caught up in some small-minded politicalness of it. As having said that, though, I thought Christie did reasonably well. I thought…

JUDY WOODRUFF: At the news conference.

DAVID BROOKS: At the news conference.

If he knew about what was happening at the time, his career is really damaged. But so far, there has been no evidence that he did.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Because he denied.

DAVID BROOKS: He denied, flatly denied.

So, if an e-mail comes out showing he knew, then he is in deep trouble. But, so far, I thought he expressed naturalness. He expressed humiliation. He walked us through in intimate detail how he found out about it, how he fired the people.

I thought it was Christie. Now, my friend Mike Murphy, the political consultant, says the essence of Christie, he doesn’t come in small doses. He comes in big doses. And the challenge for Christie as a candidate has always been, will people accept somebody who comes on that strong?

But if he comes on that strong as even a little bit of a bully, which is sort of what he looks like in this, he could be that people want a bully to go to Washington. If they’re going to vote for Christie, they don’t want a charmer. They want a big bully. And this will not hurt him, I think.

I think some politicians would be hurt by this kind of scandal. He will not be hurt, because his image, as a big, tough, bully, that is what you are hiring him for if you are going to elect him president. And so this is consistent with that image, I think.

MARK SHIELDS: You don’t want the president who is a bully. You want a president who is strong. You want a president who can impose his will upon Congress. You want a president who can lead, is not afraid to make tough decisions.

You don’t want a bully. Chris Christie has been everyman up until now. Now, at this point, he has become somebody who is so uncurious about what is going on. He was the last person in the entire governor’s office to find out about this?

Add to this the other problem that he’s going to have, is that, 2012, he was one of the finalists with Paul Ryan to be the Republican nominee for vice president. He was passed over. And when somebody is passed over, there’s always questions. And there were stories out of the Romney campaign. Many spoke on the record that it was his entourage, overbearing, demands of a private jet, demands of a big support system, impossible, divas to deal with, and all of this.

This plays right into that. And if he found out at 8:55 on Wednesday morning that this was happening, and then this is a story that has been brewing now for two months, you know, I just think it really confounds anybody’s believability.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. Well, first, if I…

JUDY WOODRUFF: You mean you are saying you don’t believe him?

MARK SHIELDS: I don’t. It’s next to impossible.

I can’t believe anybody could be so chronically, terminally uncurious about something that affects his career, as well as his governorship, let alone his presidential ambitions.

DAVID BROOKS: Well, it could be that he was lied to.

It’s also, it seems to me, true it’s rare that a scandal, especially not a major scandal, knocks out a candidate, Bill Clinton, Gennifer Flowers. Scandals are not — people are reasonably scandal-tolerant.

And as to Mark’s point about whether it should be a bully, I think in normal times, this is true. But now we’re living in a time of incredible distrust of Washington, distrust of politics. I think the standards are a little different. In times of high distrust, maybe you want somebody — and this has happened through history, and even in Israel, Bibi Netanyahu, a little rough guy.

People get — pick the rough guy when they’re really fed up.

MARK SHIELDS: What is the knock — just one rebuttal? What is the knock on Barack Obama? A close, tightly-knit staff of ultra-loyalists, don’t seek outside advice, don’t go beyond that circle, detached and disengaged.

Sound familiar to the Chris Christie modus…

(LAUGHTER)

DAVID BROOKS: Well, the diva thing, I totally get. I totally agree with that. If the diva thing is a problem, he is a diva and that will hurt him.

But he doesn’t remind a lot of people of Barack Obama. Barack Obama is very cool and…

MARK SHIELDS: No, no, but, I mean, his defense is that he was detached and disengaged. He didn’t know what was going on.

DAVID BROOKS: OK.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right.

Well, speaking of President Obama, he was the, I guess you could say, victim, certainly the victim of criticism, in the book that came out in the last few days by former Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

He has clearly broken a little bit of china with this book. It’s 600 pages. I confess, I have not read the entire thing. I am going to be talking to Secretary Gates next Tuesday.

But, just in a situation like this, David, where a former official comes out and says, among other things, that the president didn’t believe in the war in Afghanistan and didn’t trust the generals, is this the kind of thing that ends up hurting the president? Does it — what effect — what is the lasting effect of something like this?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, his — his defense is that he was skeptical of the Afghan surge. And maybe skepticism was well justified, because it was widely determined it didn’t work so well.

And so he was skeptical. And then the criticism of him, he sent young men and women into harm’s away not really believing in it. And the argument should be, if you don’t totally believe in a military mission as president of the United States, you shouldn’t do it.

And my understanding at the time — and I had a lot of direct reporting at the time — my firm conviction then was the president wasn’t fully behind the surge, that he had completely understood and in many ways was very sympathetic to the arguments against it. Why he did, I really don’t know.

Maybe he wanted to give it a shot. Maybe he thought it would work. But I certainly — the central charge, that he wasn’t fully supportive of the Afghan surge, rings completely true to my memory of reporting at that time.

MARK SHIELDS: I think, from everything — and I have not — I confess I have not read the book, but everything I have read about the book and excerpts from it, it is quite nuanced.

I mean, yes, this is an indictment of the president.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Is more than just criticism.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes. He calls him the most deliberative president he’s ever been around, a gutsy decision-maker. I mean, he really is quite full of praise. He had never made a political decision, that — you know, that he was — really, the consequences of the formulation of the campaign of 2008 came back to haunt the president.

The consequences were that — the formulation that Iraq was a bad war, Afghanistan was a good war. And so you come to office, and you have got to support the good war and wind down the bad war. And I don’t think there’s any question that — but that that happened.

And — but, at the same time, to me, there are two questions. The serious thing that he says in the book — and I think it’s true of not just this administration — we had the campaign in 2012, when none of the four had even been anywhere near military service. And there is a skepticism and distrust of the military thinking they want to go to war.

They don’t want to go to war. People who have been to war don’t want to go to war. That’s the first thing. And the second thing, I will leave to David.

(LAUGHTER)

(CROSSTALK)

MARK SHIELDS: I have taken too much time. I’m sorry.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, we will all go off read the book. Then we will come back and talk about it again.

But the last thing I do want to ask the two of you about is, we observed the 50th anniversary this week of the war on poverty, what President Lyndon Johnson announced in 1964.

David, looking back on it, big question. I want to ask you if it’s been a success. And I mean that, because right now you have got this big debate under way between Democrats and among Democrats and Republicans about whether the whole — the apparatus that was established to fight poverty has been a total failure and should be torn up and we should start from scratch with something else.

DAVID BROOKS: I’m still in shock Mark is giving me time.

(LAUGHTER)

JUDY WOODRUFF: And I’m giving you some time too.

DAVID BROOKS: Right.

I wouldn’t say it was a total failure, and I’m a skeptic of it. There were programs that were clearly successful, the food stamp program. There were programs that were successful, but they just got the costs wrong, Medicare. So they estimated what Medicare would cost today. They were off by huge factors.

There were some programs that could have been successful, but they were poorly executed. I think Head Start would count on that. And so you have got a bunch of programs that they tried all at once, which had some modest effect, but not the effect you wanted, and a lot of negative effects.

And right after the Great Society program, there was a tremendous decay in our social fabric, a tremendous rise in crime. And I would say they emphasized the economic parts of poverty. They didn’t emphasize and they misunderstood some of the social capital effects. And they had unintended negative consequences.

So I would say mixed blessing. I would lean a little more on the skeptical side, that it was a — more of a failure than a success.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How do you see…

(CROSSTALK)

MARK SHIELDS: The biggest criminal act of the last 50 years is committed by people who had nothing to do with OEO or a poverty program. It was done by people on Wall Street. And the country is still reeling and suffering and paying from it.

I think, Judy, that it’s been a very great success if you happen to be over the age of 60 in this country. We have reduced poverty among those over 65 from 35 percent of the population down to 9. Ninety-nine percent of people over 65 have medical care now. They didn’t.

And children, there are hard studies now that show people who went through Head Start are graduating from high school and going on to college at a higher rate than those who didn’t. I agree that it hasn’t been an unvarnished success.

But I would just point out this. The difference is, in large part, people over 65 have very formidable lobbies, and they vote. And kids don’t. And I do think the reexamination of it by the president, encouraged Republicans to participate in that dialogue, is important.

I think the pope deserves credit for putting it on the agenda. And I think we are addressing poverty. It’s something that when — all we talked about in 2012 was the middle class, the middle class, the middle class. Now we are at least addressing a reality.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But you are saying children have been left out of it.

MARK SHIELDS: Children have — children have been — children have not benefited to the degree that those over 60 have, who have done very well.

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I agree with that. The — we did reduce elderly poverty, but by taking — making the government a giant transfer machine from young families to the elderly.

Just one thing on poverty and Republicans. Marco Rubio had a speech today, or this week, which was, I thought, a quite impressive speech, much more affirmatively using the power of government to address poverty problems, whether it’s wage subsidies, whether it’s through direct grants, much — for a party that has become instinctively anti-government, we are beginning to see Paul Ryan and Marco Rubio and some others wanting to affirmatively use government, I think, in targeted, but limited and conservative ways to really address practical problems.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We can talk about that.

MARK SHIELDS: OK.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Unless you can say it in one word, or two words.

(LAUGHTER)

MARK SHIELDS: David is not completely right.

(LAUGHTER)

JUDY WOODRUFF: OK. Promise to let you finish that thought later.

Mark Shields, David Brooks, thank you both.