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Health Reform, Sotomayor Hearings Top Week’s News

July 17, 2009 at 6:40 PM EST
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Mark Shields and David Brooks consider the news of the week, including the confirmation hearings of Sonia Sotomayor, efforts at health care reform and the shape of the economy.
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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, where do you think health reform legislation stands as we speak?

MARK SHIELDS, Syndicated Columnist: Betty Ann Bowser’s last point to Ray is crucial to this discussion. She said that, unlike the Clinton people, who presented the Congress with a full-blown piece of legislation with minimum consultation from Daniel Patrick Moynihan, George Mitchell, Bill Bradley, ranking experts on medical care…

JIM LEHRER: John Chafee was also…

MARK SHIELDS: … John Chafee, 1994.

JIM LEHRER: They ignored him, yes.

MARK SHIELDS: Exactly, 1994. The Obama White House, in my judgment, has over-learned that lesson. They’ve let a thousand flowers bloom. And, you know, well, you know, don’t worry, we’ll kind of guide this with an invisible hand. It’s crunch time right now, Jim.

JIM LEHRER: Crunch time?

MARK SHIELDS: Crunch time, it is about to pass. Mark Leibovich, David’s colleague at the New York Times, had a marvelous piece today about Ted Kennedy’s absence. And Ted Kennedy brought to this debate, this negotiation something that’s irreplaceable: an infinite capacity for understanding all the nuance to the legislation, but, more than that, knowing how to build a coalition, knowing how to assemble people from the other side, where to give, what the history was, where somebody was.

He’s irreplaceable. The only person who can play that role is the president of the United States. He has to insert himself full time, big time right now.

Nobody knows right now what the nonnegotiable elements are in the Congress, I mean, what the White House insists has to be there and cannot be in it. So I just think it’s time for him to go full bore and to emphasize that, if this goes down, Democrats in 2010, there’s no safety for them. There’s no asylum that they voted against it. The fate, fortune and future of their majorities and his administration rides on health care.

Centrality of health care reform

JIM LEHRER: Wow, that's big stuff. Do you agree it's that important?

DAVID BROOKS, Columnist, New York Times: I do. And I completely agree. I don't know why he's not more active. You can talk to people on Capitol Hill...

JIM LEHRER: This should be an Obama plan, you're saying, for health care reform?

DAVID BROOKS: Pretty much. Yes, you could talk to people on Capitol Hill about what you're doing, and they'll talk about, "We're moving this and moving that," and the White House just doesn't come up, because that's not part of the factor. They've got the staffs who've been there for decades, the chairmen that have been there for decades.

And to me -- and I think where it hits people in the middle -- is that Obama has talked very clearly about controlling costs, not only over the next 10 years, but reducing the rate of health care inflation. But it's just not in the bills.

Peter Orszag, the budget director, wrote a letter, a very polite letter, "You know, you really should think about costs." But they're not doing it. And to me, the interesting thing that happened this week is first what Doug Elmendorf said, which ratified what we all knew...

JIM LEHRER: The head of the Congressional Budget Office.

DAVID BROOKS: The Budget Office, the current head.

MARK SHIELDS: Congressional Budget Office.

JIM LEHRER: Current head.

DAVID BROOKS: But what the Blue Dogs have done, because I watched the Republicans...

JIM LEHRER: These are the moderate Democrats, yes.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. I watched the Republicans go deep into conservative land and sort of lose touch with the country, and they do it in a predictable way. They have their lunches. They bring their pollsters. They have their favorite news organs, and they all say, "Oh, yes, we're right, we're right." And, frankly, I see the House Democrats doing a lot of the same stuff. And to me...

JIM LEHRER: Talking to each other?

DAVID BROOKS: Talking to each other, their favorite polls. "Yes, let's do this. Let's slam small business. They'll love us; don't worry." But the Blue Dogs are doing what the Republican moderates did not do, which is they're standing up. They're beginning to stand up.

I'm not sure they'll be there in the end, but a lot of the people from -- if you're from North Carolina, Tennessee, Missouri, this is a problem for you. There are elements of these bills that are a big problem, and they're beginning to stand up and really make their presence felt. Now, there's a lot of weight coming down on them, but that's actually kind of different and interesting.

JIM LEHRER: But on the cost thing, President Obama made a big point today again, today. He said, there is not going to be a health care reform bill that increases the federal deficit, period.

MARK SHIELDS: He did.

JIM LEHRER: Now, isn't he talking about this?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, and that runs directly in to his campaign promise, "I will not raise taxes at all"...

JIM LEHRER: Because you can't do it without raising taxes.

MARK SHIELDS: There's no way. And it's got to be broad-based.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree, David? You just can't do it without raising...

DAVID BROOKS: No, absolutely, yes. And not only on the top 2 percent, further down.

MARK SHIELDS: Let me speak just a word about a beleaguered minority here, House Democrats, OK, who are kind of everybody's favorite pinata. In journalism, we go after them all the time. If you're a House Democrat, 49 of them represent districts that were won by John McCain in 2008.

JIM LEHRER: You're talking about the Blue Dogs now?

MARK SHIELDS: No, I'm talking about House Democrats.

JIM LEHRER: Oh, House...

MARK SHIELDS: I mean, these aren't all Blue Dogs. I mean, but they -- you know, most of them...

JIM LEHRER: OK. All right. Just House -- OK.

MARK SHIELDS: ... many of them are in border states, but some just have won suburban districts, historically have been Republican.

And what you're facing, Jim, is you've already cast one difficult vote on climate change, OK? That was a tough vote. Now what you're being asked to do is to cast a vote that includes a $554 billion tax increase, OK? Even though it's on the Richie Riches and all the rest of it, Daddy Warbuckses, it's still a tax increase.

And you're still waiting to find out if the Senate's ever going to cast a tough vote on anything. I mean, I think Nancy Pelosi is absolutely right when she said, "Let's see what the Senate is going to do."

I mean, the Senate -- the reality is this: The president -- no one questions that this man has an exceptional intellect. He has a public voice that is compelling. He has a very presidential, appropriate temperament.

The question is: Does he have steel in his spine? Does he have a private voice that he can sit down one on one and negotiate and let people know that, if they cross him, there's a price to pay and, if they stay with him, there's a reward, there's a prize?

Cost is the crux

JIM LEHRER: But negotiate what? What is the crux of the issue that needs to be resolved to get this thing done?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, it's the cost. And that's two things.

JIM LEHRER: That's the cost?

DAVID BROOKS: The first thing is the 10-year cost of the bill.

JIM LEHRER: OK.

DAVID BROOKS: And what the president, I think, needs to do...

JIM LEHRER: That's $1 trillion, OK.

DAVID BROOKS: ... what most -- yes -- what most experts would say, you need to remove the exemption on employee health care benefits. That will raise you a lot of money. It will get money from the right places. It will reduce inflation.

But then there's the second thing which is the longer-term problem is, we now are allowed to have all the tests we want, all the technology we want...

JIM LEHRER: You're talking about medical tests?

DAVID BROOKS: Medical technology. And that's what's driving health care inflation. And the famous phrase is bend the curve, slow the growth of inflation. What these bills do is they bend the curve the wrong way.

And so he's got to have specific things. And Peter Orszag, his budget director, Zeke Emanuel, who's sitting there in the Budget Office, these are some of the world's leading experts on this. And they're just not being felt in the bills.

JIM LEHRER: I was with a group of doctors this past week, Mark, where they said, or at least one of them said, that you could -- if you want to save money on the health care costs, you have to come to grips with the hardest -- with the middle rail of health care, which is the cost in the last few years of a person's life. That's where a huge percentage of the cost goes. And nobody, no politician will talk about it.

MARK SHIELDS: No, and I think that's something that has to be, obviously, debated. I mean, I think people...

JIM LEHRER: But they're not debating it.

MARK SHIELDS: No, but I think people do, you know, negotiate that in their wills and living wills and all the rest of it. But, I mean, the disproportionate Medicare costs that is accumulated in the last weeks and months of lives is just mind-boggling to me.

DAVID BROOKS: To his credit, Obama talked about it once on the record, once on the record.

JIM LEHRER: One time.

DAVID BROOKS: He got pummeled for it. And I think the way they're headed on this issue, which is a key issue, is this thing called MedPAC, which would be like a Federal Reserve Board, and that way politicians wouldn't have to say, "No."

JIM LEHRER: Wouldn't have to make the decisions.

DAVID BROOKS: They'd have a bunch of technocrats say no.

MARK SHIELDS: Like the base closing commission.

JIM LEHRER: The same kind, same approach...

MARK SHIELDS: Same thing.

JIM LEHRER: ... so nobody has to take a hard political...

MARK SHIELDS: It's a nice way to delegate...

JIM LEHRER: ... hard political vote.

MARK SHIELDS: And then you vote up or down.

Accountability for the economy

JIM LEHRER: Staying on the subject of the president and problems, he has kind of pushed back a little bit on the idea that people say, "You now own the economy." And he says, "Fine, I'll take it." What do you make of that?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, accountability, I mean, is his. I mean, I think most people still think he inherited a terrible situation. The question they have, Jim, is about the solution. Does he have a solution? Is there a solution? Pew asked a wonderful question, great psychological question, "Are you hearing more good news or bad news recently about the economy?"

JIM LEHRER: It's a perception question.

MARK SHIELDS: Perception question. Last December, 80 percent of news people said it was bad news. And first five months of Obama, it went down all the way to only 30 percent was bad news. That's creeping back up.

But I'll tell you what I think is the Achilles' heel, the Goldman Sachs this week. If we're looking at Goldman Sachs, record profits, bonuses...

JIM LEHRER: JPMorgan Chase, as well.

MARK SHIELDS: ... living large, living large on Wall Street, Wall Street's back -- Wall Street was bailed out. Wall Street brought us to the brink of catastrophe in this country, OK?

Wall Street was bailed out by American taxpayers in Mansfield, Ohio, in Muncie, Indiana, where unemployment -- and if we're going into 2010, we've got double-digit unemployment in the heartland of the country and Wall Street's humming, I mean, what Americans measure the economy by is unemployment. They don't measure it by the Dow Jones. It's unemployment, and unemployment is really, I think, a killer.

DAVID BROOKS: Right, and Obama made a terrible mistake in promising that unemployment would not go -- I think he said above 9 percent or 10 percent. And it's clearly going to go up. It was clearly at the time.

I mean, it's P.R. 101: Don't over-promise. And he did over-promise. So that was one mistake.

The second mistake they did was to have a stimulus package which didn't really have any effect until 2009. And their case is, be patient, we didn't design it. Well, why not? If the recession is now, why not have a stimulus package that actually stimulates?

JIM LEHRER: Right now.

DAVID BROOKS: Right now. I mean, the first year, like, during the recession might be a good time for a stimulus package. The problem they face now -- and it goes to the perception -- is that people are saving. The savings rate is going up.

JIM LEHRER: Yes, they're not spending anything.

DAVID BROOKS: You could give people money. You could throw it out of the helicopters, but they'd save it, and it still wouldn't help the economy.

And that goes to the other elemental factor. A president doesn't have a lot of short-term control over the economy, maybe long term, but not so much short term, so there's not a lot he can do, so he just has to weather the storm.

Sotomayor and the Senate hearings

JIM LEHRER: Quick thing before we go. Sotomayor, how did she do, do you think, today -- I mean, this week?

DAVID BROOKS: She did fine. I'm frustrated because there are no longer honest intellectual exchanges or honest exchanges of any sort. You say what you have to say to get confirmed. John Roberts said one thing; Sonia Sotomayor said the same thing. We'll have nine judges. They'll all say the same thing. They can repeat the script, they get confirmed, but it's not exactly what they believe.

MARK SHIELDS: It was a kabuki dance.

JIM LEHRER: Kabuki?

MARK SHIELDS: Kabuki dance, I mean, it really was. I mean, you know, David's absolutely right. She spoke thoughtfully. She spoke coherently. She spoke moderately and calmly. And she said nothing.

And that's the formula. I mean, the last time we had a real exchange -- and what killed it in the future -- was Bob Bork in 1989. There was a real intellectual exchange, a combativeness. "This is what I believe."

JIM LEHRER: But he went down. He went down.

MARK SHIELDS: He went down, so everybody -- it was the lesson we learned. You say nothing. Jim, it's all about abortion. I mean, the reality is that...

JIM LEHRER: We asked Senator Leahy and Senator Grassley on the NewsHour the other night...

MARK SHIELDS: Yes, I heard you do it.

JIM LEHRER: ... and they go, "Oh, no, oh, no, no."

MARK SHIELDS: It's all about abortion. We knew that John Roberts is pro-life. We knew that Sam Alito was pro-life. We know that Sonia Sotomayor is pro-choice. And it proves once again that the political process is preferable to the judicial intervention.

We were about to resolve abortion in this country legislatively and politically in the early '70s. And the court intervened in 1973. And since then, it has been a divisive and emotional issue, and it remains to this day.

JIM LEHRER: All about abortion, David?

DAVID BROOKS: I'm not sure I'd go that far, but I do totally agree that Roe v. Wade sort of ruined the political process, especially in Judiciary Committee. So, you know, that said, I thought, if it's about demeanor, I thought she was quite effective, and I thought the senators were pretty good.

JIM LEHRER: You thought they were?

DAVID BROOKS: I thought they were -- you know, they were civil. They asked serious questions for the most part. I think there was some complaining on the left that, "Here's our chance to make our case for this is how liberals view the law. We want her to make the case." And she, of course, was not going to make that case. And so there was some complaint.

That said, I was struck just by her demeanor. You know, she's a New Yorker. And if you're a New Yorker, that accent is something you could listen to all day.

JIM LEHRER: You're a New Yorker.

DAVID BROOKS: My grandmother was a lawyer. I heard the voice. And so you just hear that.

MARK SHIELDS: She certainly, in her demeanor -- David's right -- rebutted the charge that Lindsey Graham brought up about her temperament and whether, in fact, she was a bully or inappropriate on the bench.

JIM LEHRER: Certainly didn't do that to the Senate Judiciary Committee.

MARK SHIELDS: No, not at all, not at all, I mean, in spite of a couple of temptations.

JIM LEHRER: OK. Mark, David, thank you both.