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Shields and Brooks

September 23, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT
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JIM LEHRER: And, finally tonight, the analysis of Shields and Brooks: Syndicated columnist Mark Shields, New York Times columnist David Brooks.

The hurricanes — Mark, the president canceled his trip to Texas tonight. Smart move on his part?

MARK SHIELDS: I think it was probably a helpful move, Jim. The president obviously is demonstrating this time hands on, fully engaged. But any time a president visits those preparing — especially at a time of emergency — it is a disruptive experience and a presidential visit is always bad.

JIM LEHRER: It just can’t be helped. Is the president still in kind of a Katrina recovery mode of his own, David, do you think?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, he is in deep trial. The National Review Magazine on the right said President Bush has never been in so much trouble with the conservatives in the history of his life. So yes. Let alone with the rest of the country. The exhaustion, the disillusionment, the worry about the cost, it’s just still building.

JIM LEHRER: Let’s talk about the cost. You say the conservatives are upset. How upset are they and what are they going to do about it?

DAVID BROOKS: They are upset for a lot of reasons. Some of it is Katrina – anger just with reaction. A lot of it is that. Again Katrina is always the end of a long accumulation of events and for conservatives on spending, you have got a highway bill which was ridiculous, a travesty of pork barrel spending; you had an Ag bill; you had really five years in which George Bush has spent money at a faster clip than Lyndon Johnson.

JIM LEHRER: Say that again.

DAVID BROOKS: Domestic discretionary spending – non-defense spending – non-homeland security spending — has increased.

JIM LEHRER: Non-Social Security, none all of those things -

DAVID BROOKS: — has increased under George W. Bush twice as fast as under Bill Clinton, and faster than under Lyndon Baines Johnson. Conservatives didn’t expect that in 2000. I guarantee you that. A lot of it is, frankly, the Republican Congress’s fault. If you look back – when we look back on this period, we are going to look at a Congress that came preaching limited government but just has gone hog-wild in spending, and a president who never disciplined members of his own party to restrain themselves.

So there’s just a lot of built-up anger and symbolically I think for a lot of conservatives there has to be what they call offsets, which are budget cuts to compensate for the cost -

JIM LEHRER: Of Katrina, of Rita –

DAVID BROOKS: And what we were about to say.

JIM LEHRER: Or Iraq or whatever.

DAVID BROOKS: Right.

JIM LEHRER: What’s your view of this, Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: I have seen this movie before, Jim. The first 200 years of the United States, seven wars, Louisiana Purchase, expansion of the continent, the Great Depression; we ran up a total indebtedness of 1 trillion dollars.

In 12 years from 1980 to 1992, under Republican presidents promising to eliminate waste, fraud and abuse, which is the term I heard again this week, we saw that national debt quadruple. It became an issue in the ’92 campaign on balanced budgets raised by Ross Perot and the consequence was that Bill Clinton, Democratic president, working with the Republican Congress left George Bush with a budget surplus.

JIM LEHRER: This George Bush.

MARK SHIELDS: This George Bush. In the four and a half years he’s been there, the national debt has gone from $5.7 trillion to $7.9 trillion. That has to be paid off.

The question is: What are we going to do about Katrina? We are going to do exactly what we have done all the way through. We are going to say tax cuts are the holy grail of Republicans. We can never tamper with those because my goodness gracious that’s what we are all about as a party.

And the Democrats will say that’s what you ought to do. Tax cuts this year alone — George Bush’s tax cuts — $225 billion. That’s what they total. Okay.

For the next five years it’s going to average $255 billion. This just isn’t coming in. But it is being spent, being spent in Iraq, being spent in Katrina. And I just think if you look at it in anyway realistically, they are going to borrow it and they’re going to pass it on to our grandchildren.

Right now 46 percent of the national debt is owed. It is owed and held by China and other foreign interests.

JIM LEHRER: But, other than that, everything is just great, David.

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I would draw a few distinctions. The first is the size of the debt right now as a percent of GDP is in a handleable range. The second, and this was the Bush case on the tax cuts –

JIM LEHRER: And why is it manageable? When you say GDP – meaning Gross Domestic Product –

DAVID BROOKS: Right. As a percentage of the total economy -

JIM LEHRER: Economy.

DAVID BROOKS: Right. And this budget is not totally out of whack from where it’s been, but I’m not going to excuse it so let me finish.

JIM LEHRER: All right.

DAVID BROOKS: The second thing to be said, and the Bush administration would say about the tax cuts, we have saw this year the fastest increase in revenues – I think $264 billion and they would say that’s because of the economic growth generated by the tax cuts.

But I think the core point about the debt and the deficits — and this is something conservatives and liberals are upset about — you have got to make a distinction here. The distinction is between the poor, which it gets people upset – the wasteful spending — the rise in domestic discretionary spending — the education budget has gone up 42 percent. That’s all serious.

But the really big story, the 90 percent of the story is entitlement spending; it’s Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security. There are two debts here; there is the year-to-year debt, year-to-year debt, spending on things like Katrina and on these domestic programs. That’s a debt but it’s not going to kill us.

The entitlement debt is going to kill us. So you have got two issues here. And I would say to the president’s credit, he at least tries to tackle on Social Security some way to get us the entitlement debts and he was stonewalled on that.

JIM LEHRER: What do you say, let’s start with you, Mark, both of you, about the idea whether it is an economic question or not and the deficit and all that stuff, that overwriting all of this a failure of the government, the president, the Congress and everybody and everybody else who is involved in just setting the priorities of the government of the United States?

And then you fit how much money you have into the priorities and that’s the way it works and we haven’t done that.

MARK SHIELDS: And I think, Jim, I think that’s true. And I think the problem that George W. Bush has that his father didn’t have is that this is total Republican control.

JIM LEHRER: You can’t blame it on anybody.

MARK SHIELDS: You can’t say gee, oh my goodness, those Democrats are making me do it. He’s never lost a crucial vote on spending – he’s never vetoed a single spending bill.

But I think coming back to your question, I think it is a good one and it’s a valid one. It’s been — it’s been, Jim, politics that’s worked of no choices. You have tax cuts.

JIM LEHRER: You said it a lot better than I did.

MARK SHIELDS: You have tax cuts. We are going to have to do this. Jim, as I said of this point, where David must be tired of it, I mean, we’ve gone into this war with no sacrifice. There was no price to pay — no burden to bear. It would be — the only sacrifice was going to be borne by the families of those who are at and in uniform and at war.

JIM LEHRER: Voluntary.

MARK SHIELDS: And the rest of us – the rest of us — let the good times roll.

DAVID BROOKS: I would put it a little differently. I think Republicans have in their minds we are the anti-government party. We came to shrink government. So they say that out on the campaign trail. But when you are the majority party actually governing, it doesn’t work. People want the problem solved. So instead of having a governing philosophy that will tell them I’m going to spend it here but not there, they have a governing philosophy that is irrelevant to actually governing.

So they take that anti-governing philosophy and they just toss it out the window and when they get here and spend like sailors. So what you have is a governing philosophy that doesn’t apply to the real world, so they have no sense of priorities, no sense of what’s important and what’s not, no sense of restraint and where to direct their effort.

JIM LEHRER: Well, that’s the charges made of liberals all the time.

DAVID BROOKS: That’s true. Well, there are two things to be said. One is — one thing to be said — because I can’t think of the second (laughter) – the thing to be said and this thing that struck me throughout the whole period since Republicans took over, that being a majority party or minority party matters a lot more than being a Republican or a Democrat. If you are a majority party, you try to use dollars to buy votes regardless of what your official ideology is.

MARK SHIELDS: I know it is not fashionable to defend Bill Clinton. Bill Clinton came here and it was a real issue put on the agenda by Ross Perot, and he did. You say oh gee, there were good times. Well, they were good times and one of the reasons there were good times is that the budget was balanced. And he did do it. They did turn over a surplus. And that was the surplus was going to be, was the rationalization used for the tax cuts. It’s your money. We are just giving you back your money.

I mean, all of a sudden what you’re looking at is every kid born in this country, every child born in this country is starting life hobbled by part of the national debt that has to be paid off. Do you think the fact that China and these other countries hold 46 percent of it in anyway mutes the United States’ criticism of China’s trade policies, China’s religious persecution, China’s abuse –

JIM LEHRER: Do you think it does?

MARK SHIELDS: Of course it does. Of course it does.

JIM LEHRER: New subject: John Roberts, the vote in the Senate Judiciary Committee, three Democrats decided to support him — Leahy, Kohl and Feingold. What’s the message there?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, the message is they are either brave or they’re setting themselves up to oppose the next nominee. Listen, I think this was a guy who was a great choice. And I think the reason a lot of Democrats voted against him because they’re in the throe of their interest groups, Norman Lear took Chuck Schumer and Harry Reid aside and said how much they’re against it and they voted no. And I think every party has to decide how much are we with the people who fund our party and how much are we not?

The Republicans to their credit when Judge Ginsburg was nominated, she was general counsel of the ACLU, she was definitely pro-choice, but she won confirmation ninety-six to three because the Republican senators decided, you know, we don’t like her, but we are not going to kowtow to our interest groups who are calling for her head.

The Democrats didn’t do that, and I think the reason they didn’t do that or at least some of them didn’t do it and I think the reason they didn’t do it, because their donor base has decided if they shout louder and fight harder somehow that’s going to be good for the party. I think it is just a mistake for the party and insult to the whole process.

MARK SHIELDS: I think both the nation and the Democratic Party would have been better served if John Roberts were confirmed with 90-plus votes in the Senate. The nation, because it would have been an unpetty act in a sea of pettiness and hate — and Washington has become a city of hateful pettiness, and the Democrats would have served themselves better quite frankly.

JIM LEHRER: Why?

MARK SHIELDS: Because they could have laid down the Roberts standard. The Roberts standard is here’s somebody who is obviously intellectually and temperamentally qualified — better than qualified — beyond qualified; he’s somebody who has colleagues and friends from the other party, who trust him and respect him and will testify for him.

Not nominal, but real Democrats stood up and said this is a good man; this is man of integrity; this is a man who’s not a captive of ideology and to say to the president, okay, Mr. President, let’s have another John Roberts sent up here and to lay down that kind of challenge, I just think the Democrats blew it.

I think David makes a good point about the interest groups. Harry Reid, the Democratic leader, came out against John Roberts. Okay. That’s fine. Harry Reid you could say took some political risk. He comes from a red state.

JIM LEHRER: Nevada.

MARK SHIELDS: Nevada, and he’s also a pro-life Democrat. He had met with the 40 groups, 40 groups of women and civil rights groups. Rather than saying gee, that was a nervy and really courageous thing Harry Reid did, Kim Gandy, the president of the National Organization of Women said he got the message, didn’t he, which just confirms the worst and most negative perception of Democrats as little more than a confederation of interest groups that are responsive, and when the interest group yells “jump,” the Democrats say “how high” – and I’m not saying Harry Reid did it, but that’s the perception that’s confirmed by a statement from that women, the president of NOW.

JIM LEHRER: Who is President Bush going to nominate for Sandra Day O’Connor’s position, David?

DAVID BROOKS: Wish I knew.

JIM LEHRER: Just give me a name.

DAVID BROOKS: A name?

JIM LEHRER: I’ll write it down right now.

DAVID BROOKS: Mark Shields I think is a possibility.

JIM LEHRER: What do you think this is going to cause the president to do, anything?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I think the thinking beforehand was if they, if so many Democrats vote no, they will think, oh, well let’s not even bother to win over those guys.

But I asked somebody today who is in a position to know if this, what happened to Roberts is affecting the — what’s the next pick and that person said, no, no effect. And then I said, well, who’s it going to be, and they said there are a lot of good judges out there.

JIM LEHRER: Do you think Pat Leahy, who is the ranking Democratic member on the committee by voting for Roberts at least as an individual Democratic senator has earned the right to say Mr. President I want the Roberts standard?

MARK SHIELDS: I think he has, I think Arlen Specter sent the message don’t send Janice Rogers up here and don’t send Priscilla Owen up here. If he has – if he’s going to follow the Roberts standard it will be a Judge McConnell; it will be someone of that quality, that caliber and that independence.

JIM LEHRER: Okay. We’re going to leave it there. Thank you both very much.