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Shields and Brooks on Climate Deal, Senate Health Bill

December 18, 2009 at 12:00 AM EST
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Columnists Mark Shields and David Brooks break down the top stories of the past week, including the twists and turns of the Copenhagen climate summit.
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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.

David, how do you read the politics of the Copenhagen climate change summit?

DAVID BROOKS: The first thing, I was struck by how tough Obama was.

He got there. There was a little insult from the Chinese. He gave a little eight-minute speech, which was really calling out the Chinese for almost not having integrity, not being trustworthy, not wanting to verify.

So, I was just struck tonally by the toughness that he demonstrated, which is not something he has always shown in the face of negotiations, and a sense of anger and urgency.

Now, at the end of the day, as we have heard already on the program, I guess they didn’t get too much. I’m a long-term pessimist about this issue in general. I just think it is very, very unlikely that any country is going to make — or at least the U.S. and China — are going to make real economic sacrifices for this sort of long-term problem.

So, I remain and have been vindicated today in this pessimism.

JIM LEHRER: You agree? Are you a pessimist, too, Mark, on this?

MARK SHIELDS: I am a short-term pessimist, I mean, until the crisis and people start choking and suffocating in the streets.

JIM LEHRER: People don’t feel there is a crisis yet, you mean?

MARK SHIELDS: I think that there is less and less of a sense in this country of urgency and crisis.

And, secondly, I think it’s been, like so many other issues, crowded out by the domestic political considerations and social considerations of joblessness and economic downturn.

JIM LEHRER: How do you feel President Obama handled this today and before?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I think the president — well, obviously he rescheduled himself. They wanted him there late, in hopes that — he was going to go early — that he would play a…

JIM LEHRER: He was originally going to go right after Oslo, was he not, after the Nobel Prize thing.

MARK SHIELDS: That’s right. That’s right. But they wanted him to postpone that trip to get there at the most meaningful time.

You know, he had two deadline events. He has got health care at home. He learned to be in two places at one. He had Copenhagen and the climate change. And you can put a spin, I guess, on Copenhagen that it was a victory of sorts, but they didn’t get what they had hoped for. There is no question about it.

And I think that’s — you know, it’s not a stinging rebuke, by any means, but it is not the triumph that he needs.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, I’m sort of struck by the fact that, following on what happened with Howard Dean and health care this week, another disappointment for the left — and I guess you could say most of the environmental groups are on the left who had expected more, I think, of the Obama presidency, and certainly expected more of the cap and trade bill, that it would be more aggressive, that it would actually get passed.

And that is pretty much deadlocked. That’s pretty much stagnated in the U.S. Senate. So, on a couple major issues, a lot of the people who elected the president — and I guess you could throw in Afghanistan, too — are bound to be a little disappointed right now.

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

Well, let’s use that as a segue to health care reform, Mark.

Stagnated, you use the same word; the Senate has stagnated right now on this?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, the Senate is. But I think — I’m still confident that they will get a bill. As one of the shrewder and shrewdest Democrats I know on the Hill said to me today…

JIM LEHRER: Senate or House?

MARK SHIELDS: Senate Democrat.

JIM LEHRER: Senate Democrat? OK.

MARK SHIELDS: Senator said to me today that, a week ago, he was 9.5, out of 10 certain that there would be a bill. Today, it’s seven, between seven and 7.5, but still confident. And…

JIM LEHRER: Did he say why, why he lost two points in his confidence?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, sure. You have got — obviously, the Republicans have dug in. It’s become — when you get a deadline, Jim, an imposed deadline — and this is one of the things the administration faces, because…

JIM LEHRER: Christmas, had to be done by Christmas.

MARK SHIELDS: Well, they have slow-walked this bill. There is no doubt about it. There was no push from the White House. There was — June, when there was pressure, come out with a specific push, push the Congress, there was always let the Congress work it out, and through the August recess.

So, now they’re at the end of the rope. And they tried to — they went with Senator Baucus in the Senate Finance Committee, seemingly endlessly, to win Senator Grassley and Senator Enzi over to support and make it bipartisan. None of that came.

So, when you get down to the crunch, to the deadline, and it’s Christmas being the deadline that they have imposed, because they really don’t want to go into next year on this, even though they may end up doing that…

JIM LEHRER: They want to get it over with.

MARK SHIELDS: Then — well, one senator has an enormous amount of power and influence.

JIM LEHRER: Sure.

MARK SHIELDS: We saw it with Senator Lieberman. We see it now with Senator Nelson.

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

Now, David, you wrote in your column today that you — if you were one of these 100 members of the United States Senate, you would vote against this.

DAVID BROOKS: Right.

JIM LEHRER: Why?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I mean, and it was a very tough call.

JIM LEHRER: Then I’m going to ask Mark why he would vote for it, by the way, just for the record. OK?

DAVID BROOKS: Oh, yes. And he has got time to prepare.

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

DAVID BROOKS: I think, first of all, it does cover 30 million people. It does…

JIM LEHRER: Thirty million new people.

DAVID BROOKS: New people.

JIM LEHRER: New people.

DAVID BROOKS: It does essentially balance the budget. And there are going to be tax increases. They are going to pay for it with Medicare cuts. So, there’s a lot of good enough stuff in there, and there’s a lot of reform for the current system.

My fundamental problem is that it is a slow, gradual building on the current system. But the current system is so fundamentally messed up. The incentive structure is such that providers are penalized for being efficient. Everybody’s got an incentive to get more and more care. We’re all separated from the consequences of our choices, and that you can’t build reforms on top of what is really a rotten set of incentives.

And so, at the end of the day, the question is, can you pass this and get toward real reform down the road? And I fundamentally don’t think so. One of the Medicare actuaries reported I think last week or within two weeks that health care spending is just shooting upwards. Was 15 percent of the GDP. Now I think it’s 17.7 percent of GDP. It will be up to 22, 24.

This bill will make it increase slightly faster, not slower. And if you care about things like preschool education, state spending on any other projects, that’s all going to be swallowed up by health care. And if we don’t address that problem, we have missed the central problem.

JIM LEHRER: Now, you would vote for it, right, Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: I would, Jim. And I think David began by acknowledging 31 million people will be covered who don’t have health insurance right now.

I mean, it is a national disgrace that 45 million Americans are without health care. I mean, that is an international standard.

JIM LEHRER: That is the bottom line for you, right?

MARK SHIELDS: It really is.

And, plus, health insurance companies are going to be required to accept people with preexisting conditions. It’s the same rate for women as for men, that there will not be a lifetime cap in what people are paid in the way of premiums — or in the way of coverage, rather, in reimbursement.

And I just think that’s — I think those are all important. I really do. The reason you go for it now — I think President Bill Clinton reminded Democrats that it would be a colossal blunder not to. I mean, he turned down…

JIM LEHRER: Yes, he said that yesterday, yes, yes, yes.

MARK SHIELDS: He did. He turned down a good deal in 1993. Ted Kennedy, in his autobiography, said that one of the great regrets of his life was turning down the chance to pass health insurance. And…

JIM LEHRER: And then build on it afterwards. That’s the point. All right.

MARK SHIELDS: Exactly.

And I will say this. Because of the pressure that David has talked about, the fiscal pressure, you have got to pass it now, because the cuts are going to come in the future. The fiscal pressure is going to be on cutting health care costs and cutting public health care costs, not in expanding it.

So, anybody who says, I’m not to going to vote for it now because I’m going to get something better down the road, there isn’t going to be the money, the public money, to pay for it down the road. And I say you get what you can right now and pass it.

JIM LEHRER: A political question. If — I will ask you the same question and slightly rephrased. If you were — had the opportunity to vote whether or not to allow it to be voted on, on the floor of the United States Senate, would you go with the filibuster?

DAVID BROOKS: I am a pundit, not a senator, so I just care about the substance.

JIM LEHRER: But what about the idea…

DAVID BROOKS: But I guess I would allow it to a vote.

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

DAVID BROOKS: But, just politically, by the way, I’m not sure it is a great thing for Democrats to pass this. And I will tell you why.

They are going to pass — I assume they are going to pass it. In the next several years, really, no benefits will kick in. But everyone — but insurance rates will go up. Everyone will be blaming the Democrats.

And then, when the benefit do kick in, we will see this surge in demand for health care, no surge in supply of health care, because the same number of doctors and all that stuff will be the same. When you get higher demand, same supply, you get a price increase.

And so then it’s another four or five years of people seeing their costs go up. And the political pressure as a result of these two periods I think will be such that they will gut all the good parts of the bill, which are the cost control, and will keep — will — they will entrench the expensive parts.

JIM LEHRER: Do you see the politics the same way; this could backfire on the Democrats?

MARK SHIELDS: I don’t.

I will say this. David has followed the great rule of legislating. And that is — and it — first enunciated to me by Bob Dole. No politician ever got in trouble by voting against a bill that passes or voting for a bill that fails.

JIM LEHRER: Why?

MARK SHIELDS: And the argument is you can always make the case…

JIM LEHRER: Oh.

MARK SHIELDS: … I was trying to improve it.

JIM LEHRER: Oh, OK.

MARK SHIELDS: So, you know, that’s it.

I remember Ronald Reagan — Ronald Reagan, Medicare, he was all-out against Medicare. He became its greatest champion. He was just trying to improve Medicare is what he was trying to do.

And, so, that — it is a very safe political road. It sounds like high-minded…

JIM LEHRER: I’m not running for office. I don’t care.

MARK SHIELDS: It sounds like high-minded punditocracy. But, actually, it really is…

JIM LEHRER: He’s running for pundit, not for the Senate.

MARK SHIELDS: It’s a craven political position…

JIM LEHRER: How do you feel about the filibuster and using it for an issue like this? Is that — the Democrat do it. Everybody does it. Is it getting — is it just my imagination or is the divide between Republicans and Democrats down the line more rigid now than it has been?

MARK SHIELDS: I think the divide is — and I think this is — this bill has been out there too long. I mean, it really has. This is like a couple — a married couple arguing about…

JIM LEHRER: It’s like the weather.

MARK SHIELDS: … the same thing for 12 months. And it really…

JIM LEHRER: And we have been talking about it right here.

MARK SHIELDS: That’s right. And that has made a mistake.

It isn’t as ugly it was in the past. I mean, in 1995 — because the people who are saying this is going to be the Waterloo for Barack Obama, it’s a chance of bringing him down, are basically backbenchers. They’re not…

JIM LEHRER: The leadership…

MARK SHIELDS: It’s not the leadership. It’s not the leadership saying that, the same way as it was when Newt Gingrich was the leader of the Republican Party, when he said, we’re out to destroy the other party. We’re going to — they’re thugs. They’re corrupt.

I don’t think it is the same way as it was. But there is no question, the polarization, Jim, between the two parties is as intense as I have ever seen it.

DAVID BROOKS: And I would say, why do we not have systemic reform? It’s because we didn’t have Republicans doing anything constructive on this bill. We didn’t have Democrats getting together with Republicans on the stuff they all agree with about the terrible incentives.

The entire political class decided the American people would not — will — were not willing to tolerate any sacrifice. Therefore, it could not be asked of them. And, so, we have a terrible — which I think is a — not a terrible bill, but an insufficient bill, because you had no governing. And that is a symptom of the culture.

JIM LEHRER: OK. On that wonderful note, we will leave it.

JIM LEHRER: Thank you all very much.