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Shields and Brooks on Obama’s Nobel Speech, Senate Health Bill

December 11, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Columnists Mark Shields and David Brooks talk to Jim Lehrer about the top stories of the week, including President Obama's Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech and the shape of the compromise in the Senate on a health care overhaul.
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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.

Mark, the president’s Nobel speech that Margaret just referred to, what did you think of the speech, generally?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, the first thing that hit me, Jim, listening to that speech, was that, upon leaving office, every president writes an autobiography. And people buy the book because of whose writing it, rather than what is in it.

This is the only president in our history who became independently wealthy by writing a book before he came, and then wrote a speech. Nobody other than William Jennings Bryan ever launched a national political career from a convention speech.

So, I guess I shouldn’t be surprised by his ability to master the language, to take complex ideas and put them into a coherent structure and a compelling structure.

JIM LEHRER: You would expect him to make a good speech accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo.

MARK SHIELDS: Well, that — that’s — this was a difficult speech for him, and just in the circumstances of it, because nothing became — his accepting of this Nobel Peace Prize, which 80 percent of his fellow citizens, according to polls, thought he didn’t deserve, nothing became it like the speech accepting it.

I mean, there was a sense that he was receiving the speech — receiving the award not for who he was, but for who he wasn’t in large part. And what he — that he wasn’t George W. Bush, that he had changed those policies, that he believed in international cooperation.

And then he went in there as somebody who had raised…

JIM LEHRER: Well, what about the speech?

MARK SHIELDS: I thought the speech was quite unlike any speech I have ever heard him give before.

I thought — I think it’s — we talked about the West Point speech being remembered last week. I think it will be talked about as the moment at which Obama defined himself internationally and the role of the United States. He answered problems that he had. He had been accused of being apologetic about the United States. It was an aggressively unapologetic speech of being a world citizen.

It was an aggressively national speech in the true sense of the word. And, you know, I was — I am amazed that, to this moment, I can’t find anybody who has criticized the speech. I have never heard anybody give a speech of that complexity on that big a stage and go uncriticized.

Criticize him, David.

JIM LEHRER: Go ahead.

DAVID BROOKS: I can’t. I thought it was great.

JIM LEHRER: David, you’re on. OK?

DAVID BROOKS: I thought it was eloquent, smart, subtle, and deep.

A couple of years ago — I have told this story a couple times, but, a couple of years ago, I’m interviewing Obama, and I’m running out of questions. I’m getting nowhere with the guy. He’s cranky. It is the end of the day.

And out of the blue, I say, you ever read a guy named

Reinhold Niebuhr, who is a 1950s theologian? He proceeds to give me a 20-minute summary of a book Niebuhr wrote called “The Irony of American History,” which is about how you must use power, while knowing that it will corrupt you.

Well, this speech is straight out of that book and straight out of post-war 1950s liberalism. There is evil in the world. We hate war. War is folly. Nonetheless, we have to use force.

And what is interesting about the speech is that another person greatly influenced by Niebuhr was Martin Luther King. But Martin Luther King took Niebuhr and moved in a pacifist direction. Obama, while not trying to raise himself to the level of King, says, no, these truths about evil and the permanence of war means that I, as commander in chief, have to use military force.

And, so, it was a defense, from a liberal perspective, of force, of war, in behalf of idealistic means. And so, I thought, just on that grounds alone, let alone the political surroundings, I thought quite a subtle and sophisticated and really substantive speech.

JIM LEHRER: But you talked about from the liberal point of view. Many conservatives, many of your fellow and sister conservatives are praising his speech as well. Why?

DAVID BROOKS: Right. Well, Niebuhr is like George Orwell. Everybody likes…

JIM LEHRER: Everybody likes Niebuhr, right.

DAVID BROOKS: And, so, everyone likes the idea…

JIM LEHRER: But not everybody likes Obama, though.

DAVID BROOKS: Well, right, but this is about projecting American power.

And one of the things I really admired about the speech was, A, he admitted he didn’t deserve the prize, which he was very persuasive about. But, B, that prize was given to drive a wedge between Americans. It was given for political reason.

He went the other way. He said, this is what America stands for. And, frankly, this is why the American people are a little different than the European people, because we actually do, by and large, believe in the use of force. We do believe in the projection of American power. And we do believe that, over history, this projection of military force has done a lot of good for the world.

And he mentioned Kosovo. He mentioned World War II, et cetera.

JIM LEHRER: You could see in that audience there were a lot of people who just — just looked straight, did not — did not applaud.

MARK SHIELDS: But it wasn’t a speech of applause lines.

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

MARK SHIELDS: And two points where I disagree with David. I don’t think that it was given simply to drive a wedge between Americans. I think it was a recognition that America was reentering a multilateral world, that America, under Barack Obama, had ended — promised to end Guantanamo, to abandon and reject torture as a means of governmental action. So, I mean, I think there were real reasons. I’m not saying that there were not other reasons.

And I really reject when I hear Europe somehow regarded as this pacifist. Europe, in the 20th century, spilled more blood and had lost more sons by a factor, a geometrical factor, than the United States did in either of the wars.

And, so, they know war. Their resistance to war is based upon it’s having been fought in their backyard and their front yard. I thought that President Obama made a very strong case for the United States and for force in general.

I do not think that the entrance of the United States, certainly in Iraq, and I question the continued presence eight years after the events of 9/11 in Afghanistan and eight years after the Taliban’s been removed from power there really meet the test of the just war.

JIM LEHRER: Do you think that President Obama made the case for Afghanistan while he was making his big-point speech?

DAVID BROOKS: A little. It was about pragmatism.

Remember, there is this whole elaborate thing called just war theory, which he did not go into, fortunately.

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

JIM LEHRER: That’s very complicated.

DAVID BROOKS: Very complicated.

MARK SHIELDS: It’s pretty straightforward.

JIM LEHRER: Well, OK.

DAVID BROOKS: OK. You have got 30 seconds.

MARK SHIELDS: I would be happy to do it. I would be happy to do it…

DAVID BROOKS: But he mentions all these different principles, these things that weigh. But, then in the end — and this is true Obama — he says, there is no recipe. You have to go case by case.

And, so, he made the case for Afghanistan. And I think he pretty much said, I started out as someone who was suspicious of going in. I started out suspicious of staying where we were, but I was dragged by the evidence, by pragmatic reasons, to realizing we had to up our ante.

And the case he made specifically to the Europeans was that some of the government understand the responsibility, but the European people were much more suspicious. And a bit of what he did in that speech was try to persuade the European people to support their governments.

MARK SHIELDS: The damage and hurt inflicted upon the country going to war must be serious, must be grave, and must be lasting. It must have exhausted all other means of resolving the dispute before you go to war, war is seen as a last resort.

And, third, there must…

JIM LEHRER: That is the just war theory.

MARK SHIELDS: This is the just war…

JIM LEHRER: OK.

MARK SHIELDS: … that other means must be seen as impractical, or ineffective, having been exhausted. There must be a reasonable chance of success. And the force used must be proportional to the ends sought.

In modern war, that obviously involves air attacks, as well as civilian population. And I think it’s tough to make the case in 2009 that Afghanistan represents a grave threat to the United States of America.

DAVID BROOKS: Well, do we want to have the Afghanistan debate?

DAVID BROOKS: I mean, first of all, I sat through hours of just war theory, and Mark just explained it better than those hours. So, I’m grateful.

JIM LEHRER: What about — pick up for a moment on Margaret’s piece about what the Germans told her about, this was — that was 60 years ago. And it was an interesting point. Did it ring with you?

MARK SHIELDS: It does ring with me. I mean, at some point — I mean, what Germany under Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich did cries to heaven for vengeance and will never be forgotten by anybody walking this earth.

But, I mean, after 65 years and three generations, I think it is time that we have to look at Germany with fresh eyes.

JIM LEHRER: But what about the Germans, David? How do they look at themselves?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, that is the thing. I think we trust the Germans. And I think American — successive American administrations have asked them to take more aggressive roles here, use their power in the former Yugoslavia, et cetera, et cetera.

But cultures just move slowly. And the Europeans — the Germans themselves do not seem to be there, especially the ones who are Western German. And, so, cultures, the 65 years after a trauma like World War II or World War I, that is the blink of an eye.

And we shouldn’t rush them to where they as a people are not willing to go. And 65 years is just not a long time.

JIM LEHRER: New subject, the Senate Democratic compromise on health care reform, what do you make of it?

MARK SHIELDS: As soon as we know what it is. We know that…

JIM LEHRER: Well, you are really getting picky, aren’t you?

MARK SHIELDS: I was up there — up there Wednesday afternoon trying to find out again what it is. And, lo and behold, senators off the record would admit they didn’t know exactly what was in it.

But, you know, it…

JIM LEHRER: But no public option, is that what both of you have been told? Is that real?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, the left, quite honestly, has tried to hide its glee in many cases. I mean, the left, I mean, but senators like Jay Rockefeller. Dick Gephardt has been — who has pushed this for years to expansion of Medicare to the age of 55. In fact, Anthony Weiner, Democratic congressman from New York City, made the mistake of saying, this isn’t the camel’s nose under the tent. This is the camel’s torso.

JIM LEHRER: It’s the whole camel.

MARK SHIELDS: And he had to pull back from that.

DAVID BROOKS: This is what I don’t understand, exactly this point. In order to get the moderates, they propose something which is further to the left than what is there already. So, who are we fooling here? I mean, it is — it moves you a little toward a single-payer. It is a government plan. And the concern that a lot of people have, it will — you will have a lot of cost-shifting going on, that the Medicare is paid for by shifting costs under the private plans. You get more Medicare. That makes it a lot harder for the doctors and the providers to pay for the stuff, because there is less under the private plan.

So, the idea that we have solved our problem with the moderates, I don’t think so.

MARK SHIELDS: It’s getting to 60. I mean, that is really what it is.

JIM LEHRER: That is what it’s all about.

MARK SHIELDS: It isn’t going over 60. It is getting to 60. And that’s — I mean, it’s sad, but we don’t have a majority rule in the United States Senate.

DAVID BROOKS: This actually — it actually has to work. We’re putting together a policy that actually has to work. And it seems like they are just throwing things in there to try to get to 60.

MARK SHIELDS: That is absolutely true.

But what we have now doesn’t work, is not working. We have got to cover more people, and we have got to improve the coverage of those to do it. And we have got to control the costs. And I think the third one is the toughest.

JIM LEHRER: Do you think the moderates are going to end up buying this?

MARK SHIELDS: I think the more that people like us talk about it, the tougher probably it will be to sell for it — sell it.

JIM LEHRER: They’re just — tell them what it is.

MARK SHIELDS: Well, you know, I think you can make a case that it is a step away from the public option that was celebrated.

And, you know, it comes down to, Jim, how people want to make their own judgment about it. I do think that, in the final analysis, that probably some form of a trigger is easier to sell. But, you know, right now, you are trying to get 60 votes.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, I still assume they will get to those 60.

From my reading of the moderates, I don’t think you see the firm opposition to withstand all the pressure you would take. But there has been this shift in public opinion over the last week or two, and quite negative. I mean, the CNN poll, which is maybe a little advanced, had I think 61 percent opposition, and the support was only in the 30s.

That is a little high, but still significant majority opposition, significant minority support. And whether that affects what is actually going on inside Harry Reid’s office, I’m not sure. But the public is getting more skeptical.

MARK SHIELDS: There is an urgency on time right now. I think that is what David — the point David makes, that the consequence of that is, the longer it goes, I think the tougher a sell it becomes.

So, that’s why trying to get it done before Christmas becomes so important to it.

JIM LEHRER: OK.

Mark, David, thank you both very much.