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Health Reform Push, Clinton’s N. Korea Trip Top Week’s News

August 7, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT
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Mark Shields and David Brooks discuss the news of the week, including tensions in the health care debate and former President Bill Clinton's trip to North Korea to obtain the release of two U.S. journalists.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Finally tonight, the analysis of Shields and Brooks. That’s syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks.

Gentlemen, thank you for being here.

MARK SHIELDS, syndicated columnist: Judy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, Mark, let’s pick up on Betty Ann Bowser’s report. What do you make of these protestors showing up at town meetings in congressional districts all over the country?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, first of all, there are legitimate and authentic concerns about the plan and questions about the plan, and we see that in public opinion polls.

But there is, I think, a danger here that civility becomes a sign of weakness and that the public debate is debased when I shout you down. It doesn’t become a question of, “My opponent is ill-informed or just mistaken or has the facts wrong.” It becomes one that, “He’s illegitimate. He’s part of a vast conspiracy.”

And I really think that’s a danger. It has — obviously, I think the speaker, it’s her fondest hope that there would be a communication, but I think that this has changed the debate from the merits of the bill and the proposals to a coverage now about the protests and the shout-downs and so forth.

JUDY WOODRUFF: David, how do you size this up?

DAVID BROOKS, columnist, New York Times: Well, first of all, I’ve been sitting at this table long enough to hate that kind of shouting. I hate it when they shout down Lloyd Doggett or whoever. I hate it when the Code Pink ladies would stand up at every hearing during the Iraq war and start shouting people down and have to be arrested and carried away.

But I do agree that the concern is real. If you look at the polls, it’s much broader than any astro-turf operation.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The concern…

DAVID BROOKS: The concern about health care reform. The polls right now, a slight majority are very suspicious of the basic approach. And if you compare where the polls are now to where they were when Clinton-care died in the 1990s, it’s exactly the same. We are at the low point of Clinton-care already.

And my suspicion is that will only increase, because the basic problem the proponents have is there’s no good bill sitting out there. So the president is going to spend the month going around, but he has nothing actually to sell. And so that leaves him sort of empty-handed, which is one of the reasons I think they’re sort of shifting attention to the protests rather than the bill.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But is it a legitimate worry on their part that what’s being proposed could lead to government takeover, which is what so many of these…

Misinformation within the debate

David Brooks
The New York Times
So there's a ton of misinformation going out there. But that doesn't mean there's real serious concern with real evidence sort of underlying it, which I assume is motivating most of the people.

DAVID BROOKS: Right. There's a lot of misinformation out there...

MARK SHIELDS: There is.

DAVID BROOKS: ... that they're going to cut off Granny and all that stuff, which is mystifying to me. I mean, there's a real -- I mean, my concern is, which is backed up by the CBO and everything else, that we need health care reform. This does nothing to reduce costs.

That is not the argument they're making, maybe because it's not an emotional hot-button argument, "They're going to kill your granny." So there's a ton of misinformation going out there.

But that doesn't mean there's real serious concern with real evidence sort of underlying it, which I assume is motivating most of the people.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But, Mark, the debates don't seem to be over what's really in the legislation.

MARK SHIELDS: No.

JUDY WOODRUFF: It seems to be over what people are throwing around, isn't substantiating it.

MARK SHIELDS: Throwing around, absolutely. And it's deliberate misinformation. This isn't just accidental misinformation. There are television spots now being funded where, "Why can I get -- I cannot get a hip replacement surgery," says the older person, character actor, "but it's going to pay for abortions, which I oppose?" I mean, it's wrong on both grounds. There's no basis for that.

David's right about the scare tactics about euthanasia. I mean, it just changes the whole terms of the debate. I don't disagree with David that there are legitimate concerns, there have been growing concerns. But this is generating a lot more heat than it is light. And what it's doing is suggesting that you're not -- that your motives are impure if you're an advocate of health care.

DAVID BROOKS: Let's not pretend this just started. I mean, every time we have a major issue, this happens. I mean, just go back to the Iraq war. There were people claiming there was the Project for the New American Century and Richard Perle was part of a big neocon conspiracy. There's ugliness that goes on. There's ugliness that went on in those rallies. And...

JUDY WOODRUFF: You're saying it's the same kind of thing?

DAVID BROOKS: I'm saying -- I think every time, if you look through American history, every time there's a major issue -- and this a major issue -- you get people who are totally over the line and spreading misinformation. And that doesn't justify it -- believe me -- but we shouldn't pretend it just started from one group.

MARK SHIELDS: No, but this is -- I think this is organized in a way that the others weren't. I mean, when any of us gives a speech, we are asked almost semi-regularly about, "What about 9/11? And wasn't that, in fact, organized? And the planes could not have knocked down the Twin Towers."

I mean, that is a regular -- and it's usually somebody -- but this is not something where somebody is shouting you down and denying you. The Code Pink ladies David mentioned would speak -- would shout at the congressional hearings, but then they'd be quickly removed.

This stops the debate. That's what's going on right now. That's the difference.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So when the fellow Betty Ann interviewed, one of the gentlemen at one of the rallies, said, "This is not good for the democratic process."

MARK SHIELDS: It isn't.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Is that right? I mean, what do you think?

MARK SHIELDS: No.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, I think we can both agree on that. We're not shouting at each other all these years, so yes.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So what's the effect on health care reform? Is there any effect? Does it just stop the debate or...

MARK SHIELDS: Well, it changes the whole debate. I mean, the coverage. I mean, Betty Ann, who's done great coverage about the case, pro and con, for the proposals, you know, she's reduced to being a fight reporter, you know, and interviewing the people on either side, I mean, not reduced to that, but, I mean, that's the story. And so the story is now about the protests instead of about the proposals.

Surprise dip in unemployment rate

Mark Shields
Syndicated Columnist
Psychologically, it's good news. I mean, one-third as many people lost their jobs in July as did in January, and more people lost their jobs in January than any month since 1940. So, you know, in that sense, it's an improvement, Judy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, something else to talk about today, a little bit of good economic news, David. Unemployment numbers came out and, surprise, they were a little bit better than what people expected.

DAVID BROOKS: Not as bad as we thought. And losing 240,000 jobs counts as good news, I guess. And I think it's of a piece with what we've seen, which is the depths of the recession, we've sort of -- it went down. We had a total collapse, and now we're here, sort of at a flat level.

Now, the debate has erupted, a retroactive debate, about the stimulus bill and how much the stimulus bill is a part. And I guess my paper had a story today. The consensus seems to be it had a small role, maybe increased growth by 1 percent -- but having spent relatively little of the actual $787 billion that was there.

But I think what it essentially means is we will see growth in the second half of the term, but the economic mood will not change. And as part of -- going back to the health care, when you look at major reforms, they tend to happen at periods of high economic growth. It's almost unprecedented to think of major social reforms at times of economic anxiety, because people pull inward, are risk-averse. And I think that is part of the political calculus this economy will cause for the next year.

MARK SHIELDS: Psychologically, it's good news. I mean, one-third as many people lost their jobs in July as did in January, and more people lost their jobs in January than any month since 1940. So, you know, in that sense, it's an improvement, Judy.

But the reality is, according to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, which is a liberal group, that unemployment doesn't peak for a long time until after the end of the recession.

For example, in the 2001 recession, unemployment did not peak -- that is, did not reach its lowest point -- until -- or highest point -- until 19 months after the recession had ended. And it was 15 months in the 1991 recession. So, you know, the layoffs being less or fewer are not to be confused with hiring and jobs going out.

One-third of the people who are unemployed right now have been unemployed for more than half a year. And that's more serious and more grave than any time in the history of recordkeeping on this subject, which goes back over 60 years.

Bill Clinton's North Korea Mission

David Brooks
The New York Times
I was so impressed [Bill Clinton] can control the empathy. I mean, the "great empath" goes over there, and he's so stoic in the pictures.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Two other things I want to try to touch on. Bill Clinton's trip, David, to North Korea, what do you make of this trip over there? He brings home the two journalists. What does that say about what his role may be with this Obama administration?

DAVID BROOKS: I was so impressed he can control the empathy. I mean, the "great empath" goes over there, and he's so stoic in the pictures. He shows no emotion, had to turn off his Clinton-ness, his essence.

I thought it was a good news story. You know, he got these two women out. People are saying he made some psychological concessions. Well, I don't see any long-term effect from that. I see some actual gains, some concrete gains. Two women were liberated. It didn't make the North Korean regime look any better. So I think it was a total win.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So we can separate it, Mark, from what's going on with policy-wise with the North Koreans...

MARK SHIELDS: Yes, I agree. I agree with David. And what it shows to me more than anything else is a restoration of what had been a great American tradition.

And that was, quite honestly, Judy, that you negotiated with adversaries, that Ronald Reagan did it with the Soviet Union, Richard Nixon did it with China, George Herbert Walker Bush did it. It was suspended. Diplomacy or diplomatic engagement became something that was conferred as a prize.

And I think Bill Clinton did well. I'm happy that the two reporters are home.

The Sotomayor confirmation

Mark Shields
Syndicated Columnist
The Republicans have a serious problem in this country. They have lost support dramatically, hemorrhaged support among young voters, women, and Latinos in particular.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, finally, Sonia Sotomayor confirmed. She's going to be sworn in tomorrow, David, as the latest -- the ninth Supreme Court justice. Step back for a minute. What does this say?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, you know, I guess I have a somewhat unusual view, which is I think we overplayed the race and woman angle in this story. I think if you look at her opinions and you just read the opinions, you wouldn't have been able to tell what race or what gender she was. They were just opinions of what seems to me a seemingly intelligent woman.

And so I think, when historians look back at all this, I think they will think we overplayed, for understandable historical reasons, the race and gender aspect of this, rather than all the other parts of her personality and the way she thinks.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, what were those 30-some-odd Republican senators voting against then?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, they were voting against the fact that she was a liberal. And I disapprove of that. I think presidents should be allowed to pick who they like. Barack Obama disagreed with that.

But the eight Republicans who voted for her said, hey, he won the election. We may not agree with her. We'll vote for her. I think that's the right thing to do. And I hope we get back to that as a result of the really good, heroic action of these eight Republican senators.

MARK SHIELDS: Any group in our country's history which has felt itself excluded or estranged from the establishment or the dominant leadership of the country, whether it's ethnic or religious, when one of its own emerges to a position of national leadership and is recognized with that, it really is an affirmation not only of the individual's achievements, but also of the entire group.

Somehow people, the establishment, the rest of the country will now look differently at us. I think that's how Latinos felt, and understandably so, about Justice Sotomayor.

I think the Republicans made a terrible mistake. The Republicans have a serious problem in this country. They have lost support dramatically, hemorrhaged support among young voters, women, and Latinos in particular. And they've got to figure out a way to get back to them.

They've lost women in the last five elections. They lost Latinos better than 2 to 1 in this -- the fastest growing ethnic group in the country. They've lost young voters in the last three presidential elections by a 2-to-1 margin this last time. They've got to figure out something, and this was not a help.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But David just said he thinks they've -- I mean, that they voted against her because they think she's too liberal.

MARK SHIELDS: Well, you know, 22 Democrats voted for John Roberts to confirm him, and he was obviously a conservative justice. But I think that four of the people who voted, that David mentioned voted, are retiring, Judy. Senators Gregg...

JUDY WOODRUFF: No opposition.

MARK SHIELDS: ... Bond, and Martinez, and Voinovich, so it's a distressing thing. I think it's short-sighted on the part of Republicans.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Five seconds. Do the Republicans have a problem?

DAVID BROOKS: It's a minus, but that's not why people are going to vote for or against them. It will be the bigger economic issues. But Mark's right they have a total problem, but I don't think this will be a determining factor.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right. You're a determining reason for having the program every Friday. David Brooks, Mark Shields, thank you both. Have a great weekend.