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Shields, Brooks: Obama Risks Looking Petty in Fox Fight

October 23, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Columnists David Brooks and Mark Shields review the week's news, including the coming Afghan runoff and the war of words between the White House and Fox News.

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

Gentlemen, thank you both for being here.

We just heard on Afghanistan Rory Stewart talking to Margaret Warner about what to do. Today, the NATO ministers, David, sounding supportive. The — the defense secretary, Bob Gates, is saying the U.S. is committed to Afghanistan.

Who is your sense of where the president is headed?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I think they’re going to decide within two or three weeks. That seems to be the time frame.

And my understanding of the conversation is, it’s partly a talk — a decision about troops, whether it’s an other — whether to keep where we are or go up to even 80,000 or, more likely, 40,000 or some less.

But it’s mostly a discussion of strategy. Can you do it by controlling the cities and not actually trying to control the countryside? Do you have to control swathes of the countryside? So, it’s a much more — it’s a much more nuanced fight than the fight troops or not more troops. It’s, how exactly we can do it?

I think the commitment to being there and making sure the Taliban doesn’t take over seems to me unquestioned. In some sense, the debate inside the White House does not reflect the debate outside, which is, we should really scale down. I think that’s not an option. And the fact that the NATO ministers signed onto this COIN strategy, this McChrystal, even underlines that more.

We are not getting out of Afghanistan.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Is it your sense, Mark, that — what is your sense in terms of how the White House is going about doing this?

MARK SHIELDS: I think, Judy, that, obviously, we saw an important step this week in — with the White House, the administration, as they move to make a final decision on how many troops, is — was John Kerry’s mission, and where the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, former presidential nominee made it clear that — to President Karzai that he had essentially three options, the first of which was to have another election, to legitimize his own administration, at least electorally, or, two, to have the coalition government bring in his opponent, or, three, that the United States — that he would probably have safe conduct someplace else, that, in fact, support for this would erode in the Congress, financial support, economic support.

So, I think that was an important first step, or a necessary step. The irony is that, as this decision is made, the weather is turning to the point where combat becomes less and less likely or fruitful. I mean, it’s going to be frozen. Logistically, it becomes difficult to move around the country.

The winter turns against them. So, even getting troops in and getting the support in is going to be a difficult and time-consuming task, when the decision is finally made.

Election as a testing point

David Brooks
New York Times
Almost every time you find out the true nature of a regime, whether it's an Iran or an Afghanistan, it's because of an election.

DAVID BROOKS: If I just could piggyback on one thing, it's often argued that we shouldn't be promoting democracy in places like this, we shouldn't -- democracy is -- having elections is not democracy. These things are all said.

But almost every time you find out the true nature of a regime, whether it's an Iran or an Afghanistan, it's because of an election. An election really is a testing point. And a lot of progress comes out of elections, even as in Iran and Afghanistan, when the elections are conducted poorly. You find out about a country. And it's part of the step process forwards having elections.

I think it underlines the importance of always promoting democracy and having those elections, even under terrible circumstances.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, given that, what do you make, both of you, of former Vice President Dick Cheney accusing the president of dithering on Afghanistan? He said he seems afraid to make a decision.

MARK SHIELDS: Dick Cheney is a gift to President Obama as he goes through this difficult decision.

The country is divided. I think the intensity and the passion is against sending more troops, certainly in the president's own party, in the left of his own party, liberal wing. And Dick Cheney kind of brings back a reminder of how decisions were made in the previous administration, impulsively, impetuously.

Barack Obama has suffered from the absence of George W. Bush, who discretely and tastefully has removed himself, has not been sniping or anything of the sort. And Dick Cheney reengages that debate and reminds people of largely why Barack Obama won.

And I just -- I think every time he raises his voice, it helps Barack Obama in the country and to appear to be thoughtful and reflective, rather than dithering, as Cheney charged.

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I do think -- I always wish it was John McCain or Lindsey Graham or somebody of that nature who was leading the charge.

The Republican Party has a terrible problem of who its spokespeople are. It tends not to be the best voices in the party. Lamar Alexander, senator from Tennessee, said he completely understood why Obama was taking his time to make this decision. And instead of those voices getting prominence, you get Dick Cheney, you get Rush Limbaugh, you get Glenn Beck. That's part of a larger problem.

There is -- if you take Cheney's name off the speech and just read the speech, there is clearly a difference of view. Cheney clearly sees this more as part of a vast ideological fight against Islamic extremism. And I think that view is -- or we just heard Rory Stewart say there are some people who share that ideology, but there are not a lot of people.

So, how you see the sides of that Islamic extremist movement really determines a lot how you see Afghanistan and Pakistan.

GOP suffering from low approval

Mark Shields
Syndicated Columnist
The country has changed profoundly in the past generation.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You mentioned the Republican Party. There was a poll, I guess, out -- a couple of polls out this week that showed the American public identity with the Republican Party is at its lowest level in 25 years, something, 20 percent of Americans.

Is that something we should pay attention to? What is the significance of that, Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, the significance of it, I think, it's just reflection of where the Republican Party is. And it has real problems.

The country has changed profoundly in the past generation, just demographically.

Judy, in 1992, when Bill Clinton, the last Democrat, was elected president, African-Americans, Hispanics, and Asian and other minorities represented only 13 percent of the entire electorate. In 2008, when Barack Obama won, they represented 26 percent. And it's a growing percentage.

And David mentioned John McCain and Lindsey Graham. And he's right. They're trying to reach out, and they recognize the country's changed. The party has to change. And the Republican Party got whomped, thumped, among those new emerging constituencies, among young voters.

And I think it's probably best exemplified in the special election in the 23rd District of New York, where...

JUDY WOODRUFF: Upstate New York.

MARK SHIELDS: Upstate New York, against the Canadian border.

For 137 years, that district has been represented by Republicans. And there is a vacancy because John McHugh, the Republican, is going -- is now secretary of the Army. And Dede Scozzafava, who is the Republican nominee, has been opposed by many in her own -- in the conservative wing of the party, the Club For Growth, the Family Research Council, and so forth, Sarah Palin.

And Tom Davis, the former Republican from Virginia, a shrewd and astute man, said Rush Limbaugh and Family Research Council really want the Republican Party to be a social club, where there's an admissions test, rather than a political party, where, by definition, it's a coalition.

And I think that's what the party is going through right now.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Weigh in on this.

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I agree.

It's sort of a tea party movement, which is not Republican. They're ideological purists or they're filled with social resentments. And they want narrow definition of small community of purists. And they are running against any moderate Republican.

And, that, is the identity party -- identity crisis of the party. And the danger from I think a lot of people's point of view is, Republicans will probably do well in 2010. And they will draw the exact wrong conclusion, that it's because they went over to the tea party movement that they did well.

And that will retard the growth of the party. I should also say that the Republican Party is obviously in terrible shape. The Democratic Party is also suffering. Independents are the only group that is really thriving. To me, in the 2008 election, Barack Obama created a broad center-left coalition, including a lot of red places that were -- voted for Obama voted for Democratic Congress people, and he's lost a lot of those red places, which is why they're doing so bad in Virginia and other places.

Taking on Fox News

David Brooks
New York Times
I understand why they're doing it. If they can identify the Republican Party with Glenn Beck, that's to their advantage.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, that calls to mind the White House move, David, over the last few weeks to take on FOX News, FOX cable news, and saying they're not a real news organization.

What do you make of that strategy?


Well, I think it's, A, untrue. I think there are real journalists at FOX News. Major Garrett and the people on the 6:00 news who are reporters, they are real quality journalists. That doesn't mean you have to like Bill O'Reilly and Glenn Beck. So, I think they're factually wrong.

I understand why they're doing it. If they can identify the Republican Party with Glenn Beck, that's to their advantage. Nonetheless, I think, in the long term, you are defined by your enemies. And if you see yourself as the perpetual enemy of Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck, then you will come to appear as the anti-Rush Limbaugh and anti-Glenn Beck.

And your -- your -- the idea that Barack Obama came to office with, that we will put away childish things and rise above some of these petty fights, that will all be gone, because they will just be part of another petty fight.

MARK SHIELDS: Do I understand their going after them, their anger? I guess I do, I mean, because they -- FOX News lists itself as fair and balanced.

And anything -- Glenn Beck describes -- admits he's a rodeo clown. And Sean Hannity, who is out-and-out raising money for Republican, conservative causes, campaigning for Republicans, they're not journalists in any sense.

I do agree with David that people like Shep Smith, and Chris Wallace runs a good Sunday show. And there are people. But they just have merged, I think, opinion and news gathering there more than -- certainly than is traditional.

And I do believe that it's a serious mistake on the part of the White House to do it. I think you look small. I think you look petty.


MARK SHIELDS: They looked very petty yesterday, when Ken Feinberg, the pay czar...

JUDY WOODRUFF: The pay czar, the compensation czar.

MARK SHIELDS: ... the pay czar, or pay dictator, whatever you want to call him, came in to make his report, and the White House initial press reaction was that every network could come in, except FOX. To the other networks' credit, they objected, refused to participate.

But let's get one thing straight. This is not an enemies list. I think it's a mistake. I think it's a tactical misjudgment.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And that accusation has been out there.

MARK SHIELDS: Richard Nixon had an enemies list. That's corrupting the FBI, the IRS, the Secret Service to go after people to create a list of 47,000 security threats against the president of the United States in a database which previously had 200 at most. It was using wiretaps and tax investigations.

This is not to be compared to that in any sense.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But some critics are...

DAVID BROOKS: Well, some are, but it's still demeaning. It is not an enemies list. It's not Nixon.

But it is anti-O'Reilly. And why would you want to do that? Just -- you're the president of the United States. You can rise above anything. That's supposed to be what you're representing. They're not doing it.

Compensation cuts on Wall Street

Mark Shields
Syndicated Columnist
They are responsible to and accountable to American taxpayers. When AIG gets $183 billion in guarantees and then has the temerity and the chutzpah to give itself a $165 million in bonuses, Judy, somebody has to step in.

JUDY WOODRUFF: One other thing I want to raise with you is what Mark just raised, and that is the move by Ken Feinberg, the compensation czar, and the Federal Reserve yesterday to come down on these companies that have gotten government money and say, you're -- you are not going to be able to give some of these huge pay packages.

Smart? Good idea? Not?


I don't like the compensation packages. I think what -- the companies should police themselves. But, as Edmund Burke said, what isn't controlled by custom will be controlled by law. But that doesn't mean government knows enough to do what's correct.

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I disagree completely.

When the federal government of the United States, the people of this country saved those companies, they became wards of the state. They are responsible to and accountable to American taxpayers. When AIG gets $183 billion in guarantees and then has the temerity and the chutzpah to give itself a $165 million in bonuses, Judy, somebody has to step in.

And thank goodness we have got public servants like Ken Feinberg who have answered that call. Kudos to him.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, this is one that we may need to bring up with the two of you again, good public servants.

JUDY WOODRUFF: David Brooks and Mark Shields, thank you both.