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Brooks, Marcus Discuss Potential Peace Prize Backfire, Rangel Controversy

October 9, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Columnists David Brooks and Ruth Marcus discuss the week's news, including the potential pitfalls in President Obama winning the Nobel Peace Prize.

JIM LEHRER: And to the analysis of Brooks and Marcus, New York Times columnist David Brooks, Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus. Mark Shields is away tonight.

David, share your views on the Charlie Rangel thing to us.

DAVID BROOKS: I agree with my editorial board…

DAVID BROOKS: … which is actually kind of rare sometimes.

Yes. No, he should step down, certainly as chairman of the Ways and Means. Now, whether other Democrats act, the guy has got to look himself in the mirror in the morning. He basically writes the tax code, has got the most powerful job in the country probably for writing the tax code.

He keeps discovering $500,000 here or there, apartments, Dominican rental properties. It’s just one thing after another. He just doesn’t help the integrity of the country, faith in Congress, faith in institutions. There just should be some personal standards to say: This is not good. I have got to step down.


RUTH MARCUS: I think his personal standard is, he is the chairman and he’s not giving that up, because he is an incredibly powerful figure.

His power actually is only going to get greater next year, when — not only — because not only does he have jurisdiction over health care, in part, but we’re going to have to deal with the expiration of the Bush tax cuts. And who is going to be at the center of that, if he is still chairman? And I somewhat suspect he will be. Charlie Rangel.


JIM LEHRER: So, you — what do you think of Amy’s point, Amy Walter’s point, that the Democrats are the ones who really have a problem here, staying with Charlie Rangel? Do you think — do you agree with that?

RUTH MARCUS: Well, it doesn’t help.

I mean, each party has its cross to bear, right? The Republicans seem to be specializing these days in sex scandals and paid-off mistresses. And the Democrats seem to be specializing in ill-gotten cash and financial questions.

It is not a good thing when the chairman of your tax-writing committee has tax problems, can’t get his financial disclosure forms straight. It’s also not a good thing when your treasury secretary has tax problems.

And, look, it will be used against Democrats. Is that the biggest problem they’re going to have in 2010? Probably not. Is the Ethics Committee report going to be done? Nobody should ever bet on quick action from the Ethics Committee.

JIM LEHRER: So, you — you think he’s going to — he will survive this?

RUTH MARCUS: I — that was a pretty blistering Times editorial this morning. The Washington Post editorial board, which I happen to agree with, because I’m part of it…

JIM LEHRER: And one of your fellow columnists in The Washington Post also took a similar position, Gene Robinson.

RUTH MARCUS: Right. I — that — that adds to his discomfort. It adds to the discomfort that some of his colleagues may feel. But I still think it’s going to take a lot to dislodge him.


DAVID BROOKS: I agree with that logistically.

JIM LEHRER: Logistically.

Removing Rangel could prove tricky

David Brooks
The New York Times
He controls probably the most powerful levers of money. That means, to get him out, basically, a whole group of people, his colleagues, have to walk into his office and say, it's time for you to go.

DAVID BROOKS: I mean, he is the chairman of the Ways and Means Committee. He controls probably the most powerful levers of money. That means, to get him out, basically, a whole group of people, his colleagues, have to walk into his office and say, it's time for you to go.

Suppose that coup...

JIM LEHRER: Including the speaker, right? The speaker...

DAVID BROOKS: Probably. But suppose that coup fails? Then you have just alienated the most powerful -- one of the most powerful people in your caucus.

So, it would take the president or somebody like that to really force him out. It would take this -- a giant conspiracy. And they probably do not want to have that kind of fight.

But I would say, I -- I think President Obama should think seriously about it. It's very hard to go against your own chairmen. That is always a problem. But I think it's going to be a significant problem in 2010, because people have -- people take these scandals, which may not be the biggest issues, but they see them as symptoms of a congressional reign of error.

And they loom large in elections. I was out in Yakima, Washington, a couple weeks ago. And people were talking about the government. And one of the things really leapt out of people, this group of people I was having breakfast with at a diner, was Tim Geithner not paying taxes. This was a huge issue.

And for reasons, it seems like those people operate by different rules. And it does have a -- I think a much larger affect than we might think.

JIM LEHRER: And you think the president needs to step -- not just the speaker, but the president needs to step up?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, it's his -- he's the leader of the party.

And, you know, not...

RUTH MARCUS: He had great luck with David Paterson.

RUTH MARCUS: He doesn't want to do that again.

DAVID BROOKS: Well, this is a slightly bigger deal than going into a New York gubernatorial race.


DAVID BROOKS: So, I think this is the sort of thing -- congressional approval ratings is pretty dismal already. This is the sort of thing that I think has a significant impact on that.

JIM LEHRER: All right, speaking of President Obama, what did you make today of his winning the Nobel Peace Prize?

RUTH MARCUS: I was stunned and amazed.

And I have to say that I kind of agree with President Obama when he said, "To be honest, I do not feel that I deserve to be in the company of so many transformational figures."

Neither do I. I don't understand this prize. And I actually -- I think it reflects poorly on the Nobel Committee more than it does on President Obama, who I presume did not nominate himself two weeks after he became president.

And I don't think it's necessarily particularly good news for President Obama, because it raises all those questions about the celebrity. Remember John McCain's ad? Where is the substance? What has he actually done? He was being lampooned on "Saturday Night Live" just a few weeks ago for not having done anything. And now he gets this prize.

For what? And, you know, what is he going to top it with next year? What's next?



Did Obama deserve Nobel?

Ruth Marcus
Washington Post
I like the president, I support the president. I would like to see him achieve all the things that he was... wanting to achieve. But I would like to actually see some achievement.

DAVID BROOKS: Well, my first reaction was, he should have won all the prizes, because he has given speeches about peace, but also he's given economic speeches.

RUTH MARCUS: And he wrote a book.

DAVID BROOKS: He wrote a book. That's literature. He has biological elements within his body. He could win that prize. He could have swept the whole prizes.

No, it's sort of a joke.


DAVID BROOKS: Yes, it's a bit of a travesty. People are out there -- I mean, Iranian people are protesting, risking their livers on the streets to actually do something. There are people in organizations decade after decade risking their lives who actually need a publicity boost.

And the idea that he would win it with five Norwegian lefties, to me, it is something of a joke. And I do think it will hurt him. The last thing he needs now is to be treated as the global messiah. People want him paying attention to local issues.

And I personally think it would have been certainly dramatic and maybe the right thing to do to turn it down, to say, listen...

JIM LEHRER: How could he do that?

DAVID BROOKS: He could just -- well, people do it.

RUTH MARCUS: Marlon Brando not going to the Academy Awards.


JIM LEHRER: Take a good 30 seconds and write the speech.

JIM LEHRER: What would he say? What would he say?

DAVID BROOKS: He could say, "Listen, I don't deserve it." He already said that. "I some day hope to deserve it. But this is not something that I have merited yet. And I'm a humble person. I'm aware of who I am and what I have achieved so far. And, so far, I don't think I earned this."

JIM LEHRER: Would you write the same speech, Ruth?

RUTH MARCUS: No, but I would love to hear it.

RUTH MARCUS: Wouldn't that have been fun?


RUTH MARCUS: I mean, you do have to think -- I have been imagining all day what was going through President Obama's head when his press secretary, Robert Gibbs, called him this morning, he said -- he probably said, boss, Mr. President, you are not going to believe this. You have just won the Nobel Peace Prize, and sort of elbowing Michelle Obama, saying, honey, guess what?


But what about what Brzezinski and Mead said, that there is as an aspirational element to this that could really be helpful? You clearly don't buy that?

RUTH MARCUS: Well, no, I don't.


RUTH MARCUS: I just -- the Nobel Peace Prize isn't like peewee soccer, where everybody gets a nice trophy for trying hard and being part of the team.

I think, when you give an aspirational prize, you give it to a group, perhaps, whose work you want to promote which needs a push to get to where it needs to go. But to give it to the president -- and, look, I respect the president, I like the president, I support the president. I would like to see him achieve all the things that he was cited -- that he won the Peace Prize for wanting to achieve. But I would like to actually see some achievement.

Nobel should be above politics

David Brooks
The New York Times
I personally think it would have been certainly dramatic and maybe the right thing to do to turn it down.

DAVID BROOKS: They are not the Norwegians for democratic action. They are not a political action committee. They're supposed to be somewhat above politics and above cause-mongering, celebrating genuine accomplishment.

But, over the last few years -- and maybe forever -- it is just a nakedly political prize sent to send -- meant to send political messages.

JIM LEHRER: So, you don't buy the idea, again, that this could help the president work on the Iranian situation, work on the Middle East peace situation, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera?

DAVID BROOKS: Do I see Ahmadinejad saying, oh, well, he won the Nobel, that's another matter, or the Taliban?

No. I mean, he had meetings today, meetings about Afghanistan. There are meetings about how many troops, what parts of Afghanistan we can control, whether the government there is anything we can work with. These are the actual issues that he is going to face. What five Norwegian guys believe I think will have no effect on anything.

JIM LEHRER: What about health care reform? Changing -- moving right along, this was considered, by the pundits at least, up to this point -- and I'm going to ask the two of you if you agree -- was this a positive week for those who favor health care reform, because of the Baucus committee and things seem to be moving? What do you think?

RUTH MARCUS: It was actually a very positive week and in some ways the most positive week yet for health care reform.

First, there was a very favorable score from CBO, which, as you know, we all live and die by Congressional Budget Office scores. And it said the Baucus bill, as changed, continues to be not just deficit-neutral, but the way it's constructed to actually allegedly save money over the first 10 years, and, more important, to be on a trajectory to save even more money in the following years, and not to sort of be a bank-busting new entitlement.

There is going to be a vote on Tuesday. The bill will pass from the Senate Finance Committee. The only real drama there is whether or not Olympia Snowe will vote for it. It will probably get...

JIM LEHRER: Lone Republican.

RUTH MARCUS: The lone Republican. It will probably get all the Democratic votes.

There was one very worrisome sign this week in all this sort of sense of, wow, this really could move, which is about half the Democrats in the House signed -- maybe even more than half -- signed a letter saying that they would oppose the kind of tax on high-value insurance plans that...

JIM LEHRER: The Cadillac plan, they call it, yes.

RUTH MARCUS: The Cadillac, so-called Cadillac plans.

JIM LEHRER: Yes. Right. Right.

RUTH MARCUS: They might cover eventually some Chevies.

JIM LEHRER: All right. Oldsmobiles.

RUTH MARCUS: Those are gone -- that they would oppose that kind of tax.

This could be an even more difficult obstacle to surmount than the argument over the public plan, because the public plan, you could kind of finesse and you could call something a public plan, even if it is notional.

But you have got to have the money. And CBO scores this also as having an impact on cost. And if there's disagreement over that, it's going to be a big problem.

JIM LEHRER: It could go down.

What is your reading?

Democrats still searching for votes

Ruth Marcus
The Washington Post
As long a you have conservative Democrats who are going to -- in the Senate, like Ben Nelson and other senators, who are going to refuse to go along with what the House wants, you are not going to be able to count to 60.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. I mean, it certainly was a good week.

They -- the Baucus people earn the CBO score. They took some courageous decisions. They raised taxes on a bunch of people, including the middle class. They really did cut Medicare benefits. And so they earned it. It's not totally balanced, as a Washington Post editorial pointed out early in the week, but it's pretty serious as a fiscal matter.

And so that earns it some respect. And now, as Ruth suggests, what is going to happen now is sort of the eating away of that fiscal responsibility in order to subsidize more people and cover more people.

And so the question will be how far will it drift away from fiscal responsibility? And I just wish there were some moderate Republicans who were actually at the table. There are basically none, maybe Olympia Snowe.

But if you had a group of moderate Republicans sitting there saying, OK, it's probably going to pass, let's make it as good as possible, then you could have some counterweight to the liberals who the House who are going to be wanting it to cost a lot more.

JIM LEHRER: Why are there no moderate Republicans at the table, David?

DAVID BROOKS: Do you have six hours for me to answer that question?

DAVID BROOKS: This is a long historical process.


DAVID BROOKS: But there just aren't moderate Republicans.

JIM LEHRER: Yes. But there are a few, but they are not playing.

DAVID BROOKS: Well, there are a couple of things.

One, it is opposed by 80 percent of rank-and-file Republicans. And, two...

JIM LEHRER: Just generally.

DAVID BROOKS: Just generally.


DAVID BROOKS: And, to be fair, most Republicans would like to have consumer-based, decentralized system.

This has some -- the Baucus plan has some virtues, but it is a very centralized -- gives a lot of power to regulators. It is a big-government program. And so they could say philosophically, if you had a little control of consumer power, I could be with you. But since you have given really no choice to consumers, you have centralized so much power in the government, that, I just can't support.

RUTH MARCUS: And I would say you don't actually need moderate -- I would love to see more moderate Republicans in the Senate or anywhere. But you don't actually need them to have the kind of impact that David is looking for on this health care bill, because you have conservative Democrats.

And as long a you have conservative Democrats who are going to -- in the Senate, like Ben Nelson and other senators, who are going to refuse to go along with what the House wants, you are not going to be able to count to 60, which is where they need to get. And that will have the mitigating effect.

And I think -- my guess is, in the end, the president of the United States is going to have to tell the liberal Democrats in the House of Representatives that they need to suck it up and...

JIM LEHRER: No public plan?

RUTH MARCUS: No public plan. There is going to be -- there is going to be something that they can claim is a public plan. They're going have to vote for some kind of tax, and -- or else they will be blowing up health care. And I don't think that is good. I think, in the end, that they blink.

DAVID BROOKS: I take it back. Maybe he deserves the Nobel Peace prize. If he can do that...

RUTH MARCUS: For that, yes.

JIM LEHRER: Well, on that -- on that note, note of peace.

RUTH MARCUS: Next year's.

JIM LEHRER: Next year's Nobel Peace Prize.

OK. Well, thank you both.

DAVID BROOKS: Thank you.