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Shields and Brooks

July 26, 2002 at 12:00 AM EST
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JIM LEHRER: And finally tonight, Shields and Brooks, syndicated columnist Mark Shields, and David Brooks of The Weekly Standard.

Mark, how do you read the President’s threat, renewed threat today, to veto the homeland security bill if he doesn’t get what he wants in civil service flexibility — the issue that Margaret discussed with the two congressmen at the opening tonight?

MARK SHIELDS: Jim, I find it fascinating. The president, the commander in chief, he dominates the landscape on any discussion of national security. He’s about to get 99 percent from Joe Lieberman and the Democrats in the Senate of what he’s requested and a major transformation of political structure and the governmental structure.

Yet this one fight to me symbolizes the total end… official termination of the good will that followed September 11. After September 11, every politician in shoe leather wanted to be photographed with, identified with, the heroes of that tragedy: The firefighters, the police officers, the emergency workers. We heard tributes to their heroism so richly deserved.

Yet every one of those workers was a public employee and a dues-paying union member, none of whomever was recorded said, no, no, I’m not going to work overtime. No, no, I’ve got to talk to my shop steward here — all of whom put their own life at risk to save strangers. As a consequence you heard very little of the antigovernment rhetoric that had been so popular in conservative, rhetorical circles before that. Then, you know this is over.

Now we’re back to business as usual. President Bush has just endorsed a… what could be called an anti-business accounting reform bill, which many in the business community are upset about. This is back to look we’re going to stand with you. We’re against unions.

And it’s still the same old guys and the Democrats; unions workers are an awfully important constituency to them but on right of collective bargaining it’s a deeply ingrained verity for the Democratic Party.

JIM LEHRER: How do you see, it David?

DAVID BROOKS: Differently.

JIM LEHRER: Surprise, surprise.

DAVID BROOKS: This is not about whether you admire firemen or policemen or people like that. This is about whether the president has the flexibility to protect the people. There was a study of 100,000 federal workers who operated under these rules who were rated as poor performers. Only 3 percent of those people were removed from those jobs. That means as I understand the Democratic position in the Office of Homeland Security, which is charged with protecting our homeland from terrorist threat, 97 percent of the people who are incompetent at their job will be allowed to stay in those jobs. It seems to me that endangers the American people in terrorist attack. It seems to me, you know, the Republicans and on this show Mr. Portman was polite about it.

But the Democrats are supported by the unions and they get a lot of campaign donations from the unions but it seems to me when national security is involved, that you have to be flexible and you have to allow incompetent people to be fired. That’s what’s happened with the federal workers at the airports, the airport workers; they have more flexible rules. That’s what happens in the CIA, the Secret Service, FBI, but it’s not being allowed to happen here. It seems to me it’s shameful actually.

JIM LEHRER: You mean it’s a political union issue.

DAVID BROOKS: No, that’s not only part of it. But I think that’s a strong element, the loyalty of the unions. I do think as in most issues there’s the political interest of donors helping the donors, helping the people who are the base of your party; there’s also sincere interest that you have to protect these rights.

And I understand that. It’s sincere. I don’t say they’re totally being bought out. I think the union element is a strong part of it though.

JIM LEHRER: What about David’s point? The president ought to have the right to fire incompetent people in a national — in a Department of Homeland Security.

MARK SHIELDS: Incompetent people can be fired, are fired. And the reality is this is not talking about firing. This is talking about eliminating the right of workers to belong to the union and to collectively bargain, which is deeply already established. And it’s not a question — you show me an example where anybody in the national security… I mean, we had the crisis.

We had… I mean we had the laboratory experiment in New York. Is there a more unionized state in the United States than the City of New York — the state of New York? Is there one single example of one of them who, you know, for any reason said gee I’ve been on the clock too long? I’m supposed to have a 15-minute break every four hours? Not at all.

DAVID BROOKS: I don’t know the union rules in New York. In cases like September 11 people go beyond. They don’t care about the rules in cases like that. But it seems to me in the day-to-day preparation for some sort of terrorist attack, which is not a remarkable thing, it’s not when people feel called upon to heroism, which they do perform, but the day to day running of the bureaucracy, it’s making sure that people who are competent on the job get promoted and people are not in a position where they can mess up, it seems to me that’s the thing we have to worry about — not in those heroic instances.

It’s also about attracting good people and good young people to these sorts of government jobs. There was a poll by Mark Penn done earlier in the week; 41 percent of young people are interested in government service, which is a very high number, since September 11. Then they’re told what government service involves; that it will take weeks and months to find out if you get the job, that the bureaucracy involved; that doing well in your job doesn’t necessarily lead to promotion.

Then suddenly they’re not interested. It seems me in the office like the Office of Homeland Security you want the federal work force to be able to attract the best people and look more like the rest of the work force.

MARK SHIELDS: I don’t think it’s any question anybody who wants to work in homeland security brings to it that same sense of mission and same sense of purpose. I think it’s self-defining.

JIM LEHRER: David, what about the basic line here though? Is this such an important issue that you believe the president is justified in vetoing it if it comes to him finally in that bill?

DAVID BROOKS: I think it is. And I don’t think it’s pro business or union busting. I just think he feels that he can’t meld all these different agencies together unless he has some flexibility. I would like to return to something Mark said, which has suggested sort of a feeling I’ve had that you sort of I guess have had too that since September 11 there was a feeling of bipartisanship. There was some coming together.

I really feel in the last couple weeks on a whole range of issues we’ve really gone back to orthodox Republican-conservative positions. I felt there’s a much wider gap even than there was in the 1990s because Clinton was sort of in the middle. But there’s really a return to almost Cold War polarities now in politics.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree?

MARK SHIELDS: I think we’re returning to normal. I mean, we were at a time– and that’s essentially what we’re seeing in surveys, we see it also in the climate.

JIM LEHRER: Is that a good thing or a bad thing?

MARK SHIELDS: I think it’s a good thing. I think partisanship is good. I’m not for polarity. David has always….

JIM LEHRER: You’re for reasonable‚Ķ

MARK SHIELDS: Yeah. I think partisanship, God bless partisanship. Let’s be very frank about it, Jim. The Democrats – I have said before — have had all the combativeness of a sedated sheep for the past several months.

And now all of a sudden, you know, there’s a sense that, gee, there’s an election in 2002. There are differences between us. Those differences all of a sudden seem to be important to voters and maybe we ought to reidentify with what we’ve stood for historically.

DAVID BROOKS: I think that’s a fair point. Aristotle and I are always saying that human beings are political creatures.

MARK SHIELDS: There you go again. You and your Greek friends.

JIM LEHRER: So you don’t think creeping return to… not creeping, you would say at this point — I mean a return to partisanship is necessarily a bad thing?

DAVID BROOKS: Not necessarily but it is, I think it’s an angrier climate. I do agree with Mark that the Republicans have been on the conservative side for a long time. The Democrats were more to the center. I think they’re reverting. The Wall Street scandal plays into this, by the way. I really think over the past couple of weeks the Democrats have, in my view, flipped their lid, have lost a lot of the pro business, pro capitalism attitudes they had in the 1990s under Bill Clinton and have reverted back to Naderism.

JIM LEHRER: To the detriment of themselves or to the detriment of the president?

DAVID BROOKS: I think so. I think it’s mostly in rhetoric. It’s in broad brush attacks on corporate America, broad brush attacks on big business, corporate greed. It’s on slandering a guy like Harvey Pitt, who is no friend of mine but he’s attacked simply because he used to work… he used to do some work for KPMG and other consulting groups as if doing that work somehow taints him. It’s in that sort of attack that I really think the Democrats are distancing themselves from middle class suburban voters who work for corporations.

JIM LEHRER: Mark, do you see it that way?

MARK SHIELDS: I could not disagree more strongly.

JIM LEHRER: So we have a polarizing situation here.

MARK SHIELDS: Some polarity has crept in. Jim, the plurality of voters now believe that George W. Bush cares more about large corporations than cares about ordinary citizens. There’s no doubt about it. I mean, this is… this is a… to the Democrats, this is an enormous political gift.

For them not to take advantage of it would prove that they really have lost any instinct for the capillary let alone the jugular. The reality is this. We have an administration that’s provided itself on its corporate ethos. This is an MBA President. All of a sudden being closely identified with large business and big business has become a political liability. It’s become political baggage for the president and for Republicans.

That’s why you saw this head long embrace of Paul Sarbanes’ legislation this week on accounting reform. The last time I checked there were 49 Republicans in the Senate. I didn’t see one of them voting against that bill.

JIM LEHRER: But you think this is a cheap shot, right, David?

DAVID BROOKS: I think the Democrats have been given this incredible gift and they’re going to screw it up.

JIM LEHRER: What are they doing?

DAVID BROOKS: What they’re going to say is we hate guys like Bush and Cheney, that hold country club crowd, with their tasseled loafers, they were prom kings; they were in the fraternities we couldn’t get into. We hate these people. If only we can get the American people to hate them as much as we hate them, then we’ll win elections.

Well, having watched the Republicans try to get the country to hate Bill Clinton, I can tell you, it ain’t going to work. The American people are not going to hate Dick Cheney; they’re not going to hate George Bush. It seems to me the vulnerability the Republicans have, and I’m a pessimist about Republicans fortunes, is they do not have the answer to the question, which people are going to start to ask in November, which is what are you going to do to make me feel secure? I don’t think it’s the scandals.

JIM LEHRER: You mean secure from in a homeland security context.

DAVID BROOKS: And in the stock market.

JIM LEHRER: And economic security. Okay.

DAVID BROOKS: I don’t think the scandals are going to amount to anything. I don’t think the economy is going to amount to anything. The economy grew 6 percent in the first quarter and 3 something percent in the second. But people feel insecure; there’s a wave of anxiety.

And they’re going to say to the Republicans, what are you offering me to make me think this anxiety is going to do away? Capital gains stuff? That doesn’t sound right. Social Security privatization? That doesn’t sound right. So all the standard Republican policies, which I happen to believe in, are politically off the table at the moment, and that’s a problem for the Republicans.

MARK SHIELDS: It’s a problem for the Republicans because when all is said and done, I don’t detect that same zealous rhetoric and I guess David is hanging around different precincts than I am. I don’t hear that from Democrats. I really don’t. You know, you go to speeches on the floor of the House or the Senate you don’t hear them, you know, wanting to have the firing squad for CEO’s. But, Jim, whether it’s an epidemic or an outbreak of ring worm or whether it’s declining Sunday school attendance, the Republicans have had a one-size-fits-all remedy for every social and economic ill. It’s called a tax cut.

Right now, I mean, they’re facing the responsibility, the party that has the White House is responsible for the economy. Bill Clinton was in trouble on that in ’94 and he soared to reelection in ’96. George W. Bush, the problem with Republicans right now and the way they’re concerned the ones up in November is they think the white house is a lot more concerned about 2004 and reelection of the President than they are about keeping a Republican House and maybe getting back a Republican Senate in 2002.

JIM LEHRER: In a word, do you agree with David that the real issue though is how the state of mind toward their own security, is that more important than whether the economy itself is doing right or wrong?

MARK SHIELDS: I think, you know, perception is based upon reality. I mean, Jim, people thought they had college funds for their children. They thought they had retirement funds. And all of a sudden those are gone.

JIM LEHRER: So I think he agrees with you there’s a lack of polarity here. Thank you both very much.