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Shields and Brooks on Obama’s Olympic Trip, Health Care

October 2, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Mark Shields and David Brooks sort through the week's news, including President Obama's trip abroad to tout Chicago's bid for the Olympics, new moves on health care reform and talks with Iran on its nuclear program.

JIM LEHRER: And to the analysis of Shields and Brooks, syndicated columnist Mark Shields, New York Times columnist David Brooks.

All right, let’s go with the big news first. Chicago loses the Olympics to Rio. Are you one of those pundits that Christine Brennan was talking about who’s going to see this as a big political loss to the president?

DAVID BROOKS, columnist, New York Times: No, I thought Robert Siegel of NPR had the best line, which was the old Mayor Daley would have known how to rig an election, find some dead IOC members, have them vote. Somehow the old mayor — if you can’t rig an IOC election, that’s a disgrace to Chicago.

You know, I don’t blame Barack Obama for going. He might as well give it a shot, if we didn’t win for whatever reason. But, you know, so he flew over there, he got to meet Stanley McChrystal. It’s almost the first time he’s had face time with him. So…

JIM LEHRER: They met on Air Force One.

DAVID BROOKS: Basically 25 minutes.

JIM LEHRER: He was already in Europe, so he went over to Copenhagen, yes.

DAVID BROOKS: And so, you know, I can’t get that excited — with Iran that’s going on, the economy, health care, I just can’t get that excited. He gave it a shot. We didn’t win.

JIM LEHRER: What do you think, Mark?

MARK SHIELDS, syndicated columnist: Jim, the old story about Chicago is the grandmother who wanted to be buried there, even though she didn’t live there, because she wanted to remain active in politics even after her death. And that’s…

JIM LEHRER: That’s a very old joke, Mark.

MARK SHIELDS: But that’s the old Chicago legend that they are good at politics. And certainly, it was proved in 2008 in the Obama campaign. They came from nowhere, a first-term senator, beat the face cards of the Democratic Party, won the highest percentage of the popular vote of any Democrat, other than Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson, in the history of the country.

And this was confidence — not shattering, but it was confidence-shaking. This afternoon, all people were talking about was, why did they go there? Doesn’t anybody count? Where is David Plouffe, the campaign manager? At least he could count. And they started…

JIM LEHRER: In other words, he should have known…

MARK SHIELDS: Should have…

JIM LEHRER: … what the count was going to be before he went. If he couldn’t win it, don’t go. Is that it?

MARK SHIELDS: You’ve got finite — exactly. You’ve got finite political capital. I mean, how do you spend it? And they point to three examples of where — the question of how it’s being spent.

Last week, an awkward, clumsy attempt by the White House to try and get David Paterson, the unpopular and succeeded unelected Democratic governor of New York, not to run, fingerprints all over it, and you don’t succeed in getting him out of the race.

This week, just saw in Betty Ann’s piece, the public option comes up in the Senate Finance Committee. The president is committed to it. Make no calls. Make no — the White House doesn’t lift a finger. They’re saying, “Well, wait a minute. Where are they?” I mean, you want to know where people are.

And then today, it’s a question, quite honestly, of saying, is there somebody in charge here? Are there too many loose ends?

JIM LEHRER: Clearly, David, Mark sees this as a much more serious event.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, I guess, if you put it into part of a storyline of a whole series of things they’re not doing so great on, it is true. I ran into some senators earlier in the week. They all assumed we had it in the bag.


JIM LEHRER: Everybody did.

DAVID BROOKS: They all said, “There’s no way he would go if we didn’t have it in the bag.” That was the general…

JIM LEHRER: Yes, he wouldn’t have gone.

MARK SHIELDS: I heard that Tuesday night on guarantee, that he’s not getting on a plane until the votes are there. And, you know, say what you want. I mean, it was pretty impressive how Rio went from the second ballot to 46 votes. I mean, we weren’t even in it.

JIM LEHRER: Yes, I mean, Chicago had 18. I mean, they were…

DAVID BROOKS: But that said, the Obama method seems to be: Try a lot of things. Somebody counted up the number of major initiatives the Obama administration has put together. I think it was like 154 or something like that. They’re trying a lot of things. They’re not going to win on them all.

And I would say, on the whole, setting policy aside, just in terms of getting things passed, I don’t think you could fault them for incompetence at this point. I mean, they did pass the stimulus, whether it worked or not. They’re doing actually pretty well in health care, if you just count passage.

So I agree that there have some stumbles, and today was one of the bad days, but I still don’t think you can draw a storyline of incompetence.

Health care reform steps forward

David Brooks
New York Times
The concern I have substantively, the concern I've had all along, are we simply going to add on to a dysfunctional health care system or are we going to actually try to reform the system?

JIM LEHRER: OK. Let's talk specifically about Betty Ann Bowser's piece about what the Senate Finance Committee did. Big step toward -- do you think this is going to finally -- both of you have said many times now that eventually something's going to be passed. Was this a big step toward that?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, we're re-vindicated.

JIM LEHRER: Re-vindicated? Re-vindicated?

DAVID BROOKS: I think we are looking -- yes, retro-re-vindicated.

JIM LEHRER: Retro-re-vindicated.

DAVID BROOKS: You know, I think this is another step toward passage. It looks a lot more likely. The concern I have substantively, the concern I've had all along, are we simply going to add on to a dysfunctional health care system or are we going to actually try to reform the system?

JIM LEHRER: Actually fix this.

DAVID BROOKS: And last night, there was a big step backwards substantively. Ron Wyden had this amendment, which was a shrunk-down version of...

JIM LEHRER: The senator from Oregon, Democrat.

DAVID BROOKS: ... senator from -- real Democrat, which was to give people more choice and to create more competition, which according to CBO and many others would actually bring down costs and create a dynamic. And that was beaten in the committee.

And Ron Wyden has sort of walked himself up and said, "Hey, if this is not in there, I'm not voting for this thing." Now, he hasn't quite said that, but he's certainly indicated that way. And so while the thing certainly took a step forward, all it takes is one enthusiastic Democrat to really pull it back.

JIM LEHRER: So it's not a done deal, Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: It's not, no. Five committees, as Betty Ann said in the piece, you know, have passed it. I mean, that's three in the House, two in the Senate.

But where we are right now, Jim, those two nagging questions remaining unresolved. Is there going to be some sort of a public entity -- call it what you want -- whether it's a triggered or that comes in, that forces the competition and forces insurance companies to keep their prices down?

JIM LEHRER: You mean something different than the cooperative?

MARK SHIELDS: Something different than the cooperatives, yes.

JIM LEHRER: That's in the Senate bill, OK.

MARK SHIELDS: The Senate Finance Committee is not as liberal as the Senate. I mean, they lost 5 of the 13 Senate Democrats on the public option. That is not -- that's 38 percent, by my arithmetic. They're not going to lose 38 percent in the Senate. I think the -- my reporting on the Hill this week, between 52 and 55 Democratic senators are for the public option.

So the question is -- there's a lot of other questions. The first one is in the House. It passed three different bills: Ways and Means, the Education and Labor Committee, and Henry Waxman's Commerce Committee. Speaker Pelosi will boil that down to one. It would be her bill. Will the Democrats in the Senate -- I mean, she's listening...

JIM LEHRER: Do the same?

MARK SHIELDS: ... to everybody. Don't get me wrong. She's tireless in listening to everybody. There's no one who hasn't had a hearing.

JIM LEHRER: So she has to come up with a bill. The Senate comes up with a bill.

MARK SHIELDS: Does the Senate come up with a single bill? And the argument then is this, that at that point, the president should intervene, and the president should bring all parties, interested parts to the White House for the equivalent of a summit and say, "I want one bill. We're going to come out of here with one bill."

Because what you'd like to do -- ideally, I believe -- is vote once in the House and the Senate. You don't want to go to conference. You don't want to go, put people through tough, difficult, painful political votes when nothing's going to come of it.

Getting the votes

Mark Shields
syndicated columnist
Harry Reid has to get out of his caucus is an agreement on procedural votes, that if there's a -- if there is a filibuster on any issue, that all 60 will vote to cut that filibuster off.

DAVID BROOKS: But do you think he wants to get 60 votes or 52? There are two ways to pass it.

MARK SHIELDS: You can get -- 60 votes is very simple. What you have to get -- Harry Reid has to get out of his caucus is an agreement on procedural votes, that if there's a -- if there is a filibuster on any issue, that all 60 will vote to cut that filibuster off. And that's the...

JIM LEHRER: No matter what their positions are on a specific...

MARK SHIELDS: That's right. You can vote your own conscience. You can vote your own constituency on the issue itself. But if they're going to try and filibuster an issue, that I have to have your vote.

JIM LEHRER: Does that make sense to you?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I guess so. I just think it's a huge advantage to get 60 on the substance. I think people are going to still be nervous. If you look at -- we've had all this debate. We had the summer and then we've had the debate. The public is still extremely skeptical, and it's still extremely skeptical in swing states.

And I'm impressed that Mark thinks there are 52 to 55 votes for the public option. I believe that. But that's because -- the general view is there are a lot more Senate Democrats who didn't think -- who didn't support the public option.

But if they can get that, I still think there's going to be a high degree of skepticism for voting for a health care bill that includes all that with the spending, with issues that really haven't been explored in the public mind.

If you're making over $66,000 and you don't have a health care plan, you're going to be forced to buy one at tremendous personal cost. That has not really hit home yet to a lot of Americans. There are still political hurdles to cross.

JIM LEHRER: Many debates still to come, in other words.


Talks with Iran

David Brooks
New York Times
We're pretending all that stuff with the riots and all that, that just never happened, and so we're sitting down with the regime. We've given them that. We've given them a concession.

JIM LEHRER: All right, new subject, the Iran talks. The president called it a constructive beginning. You agree?


JIM LEHRER: Do you agree?

DAVID BROOKS: No, I don't.

JIM LEHRER: OK. Let's go...

MARK SHIELDS: No, I definitely do. I mean, I think that the fact that Russia and France and the United States, they're going to -- enriched uranium of Iran is going to Russia. And I think, obviously, it's expectations alone, but I think that there is a chance now for us to put some real pressure on Iran, on this issue, to enlist all six countries in it, and to hold them accountable.

But the fact that we're sitting down, talking for the first time in 30 years face to face, I think is encouraging, I think is positive.

DAVID BROOKS: Well, that's encouraging. The discouraging part was a few months ago Ahmadinejad stole an election...


DAVID BROOKS: ... and there were people who were there marching in the streets, doubting the legitimacy of the regime.

MARK SHIELDS: That's true.

DAVID BROOKS: We were not willing to grant them legitimacy, and that's all over now, and now we've granted them legitimacy. We're pretending all that stuff with the riots and all that, that just never happened, and so we're sitting down with the regime. We've given them that. We've given them a concession.

They've given us something. They've made some gestures. Whether it's enough to justify what we've done for them, granting them this legitimacy, I think they're a long way from that.

JIM LEHRER: What would have been the alternative to talking to them, in other words, to granting them the legitimacy?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I'm fine with talking to them. I think we should always be talking about the legitimacy of a regime. I think the Obama administration has gone too far to just push that under the rug.

And, second, I just think we have to have a sanctions -- we have to have more leverage as we go there, which we do not have yet. We do not have a serious sanction regime. So I'm all for talking with them, but I want to make sure we actually get something.

Developing an Afghan strategy

Mark Shields
syndicated columnist
You can't accuse him of being impulsive. He doesn't shoot from the hip. I mean, this is an extended process; there's no doubt about it.

MARK SHIELDS: I don't question the illegitimacy of their election. At the same time, we're talking about sending another 40,000 American troops, seriously debating that, to a country where their election was just stolen, I mean, where there is...

JIM LEHRER: Afghanistan, right.


MARK SHIELDS: ... where there was an illegitimate government.

JIM LEHRER: Which is what I was going to ask you about next, lastly.

MARK SHIELDS: OK, I anticipated that.

JIM LEHRER: Yes, you did. Well done. Well done, Mark. But where do things stand? I mean, this tarmac conversation that the president had with McChrystal in Copenhagen and that -- and everybody is kind of waiting for the president to make a decision. Is he going to make one? And should he make one quickly or...

MARK SHIELDS: You can't accuse him of being impulsive. He doesn't shoot from the hip. I mean, this is an extended process; there's no doubt about it.

I mean, it is complicated by the fact that General McChrystal is his man. For only the second time since Harry Truman and MacArthur has a commander in the field in combat been relieved of his duty and placed in there, so he's his man.

And the point was, today was the first time he's talked to him face to face, 25 minutes on the tarmac, in the front compartment of Air Force One. You know, I don't know. He says he doesn't want to violate the chain of command; that's the White House's explanation.

JIM LEHRER: Goes through the secretary of defense...

MARK SHIELDS: Goes to the secretary of defense, the Joint Chiefs...

JIM LEHRER: ... chairman of the Joint Chiefs.

MARK SHIELDS: The Joint Chiefs. I think that Secretary Gates is going to be very, very influential in this decision.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree, that it's going to...

DAVID BROOKS: Right. They had 18 people in the Situation Room, I think, for three-and-a-half hours this week. And McChrystal and such are the -- they make the argument for this surge, if you want to call it that. Vice President Biden makes the argument against. So I think it's absolutely appropriate to have this debate. I wouldn't rush them. It's an important debate.

The only two things I'd say is, there is only one way to beat an insurgency, as far as we know and as far as history show, and that's what McChrystal is talking about. If they have some historical record to suggest some medium, other, easier way to do it, I wish they would announce it.

The second thing and the thing that disturbed me in one of their stories today about that meeting was some people more on the Biden side came out and said, "Well, one thing we've established is the Taliban can take over Afghanistan. That doesn't mean al-Qaida will come back." And to me, they're already spinning defeat. If they're saying, "Well, the Taliban takeover wouldn't so bad," that's a mistake.

JIM LEHRER: OK. We have to go. Thank you both very much.