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Shields, Brooks Consider Kennedy Legacy, Health Reform Prospects

August 28, 2009 at 12:00 AM EST
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Columnists Mark Shields and David Brooks discuss the week's top news, including Sen. Edward Kennedy's legacy, the health reform debate and detainee interrogation.
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JEFFREY BROWN: And, finally, to the analysis of Shields and Brooks.

Judy Woodruff is with them tonight.

JUDY WOODRUFF: That’s, of course, syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks. Good to see you both.

MARK SHIELDS: Thank you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Gentlemen, let’s start out with health care.

David, we’re a week away from Congress coming back from the August recess. Where does this big battle stand, and especially now that Ted Kennedy is gone?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, it’s still not good, if you are looking for passage.

If you look at the president’s approval rating, they were up at 70 a couple months ago. Now they have — a steady decline down to about 50, around there. If you look at public view of the health care plan, specifically, it’s a slight majority against, but that seems to be pretty hard.

So, what I would expect the administration to do is to do two things: one, actually come out with their own plan, try to relaunch this with their own plan; and, second, do something dramatic, maybe have a joint session of Congress speech, something like that, to really relaunch the debate, because, the way it is going now, I don’t think there is a member of Congress who is moderate or leaning who has leaned in favor in the last couple of months.

And a number and many have been sort of leaned a little against.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Is that how you are reading it, Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: Sadly, I agree with David on — on most of what he said.

Judy, it’s not a question of messaging. The president is an effective messenger. People like Barack Obama as president. They want him to succeed. Bill McInturff, the Republican pollster, John McCain’s pollster, made that point to me as recently as yesterday.

But the problem is, I think, the content. I really do. And I — I think, whether you call it relaunching, rebranding, whatever, they have got to come out with what they want.

There are — interestingly enough, consensus is emerging. As — as others have pointed out as well, I mean, there is an agreement that there wasn’t 15 years ago about insurance companies; that they cannot deny coverage because of a preexisting condition; that they can’t take away coverage when somebody gets sick; that they want to remove the limits on lifetime benefits received.

But insurance companies, legitimately and understandably, are saying, look, if all the reform is going to be us, you know, what’s to prevent anybody from just saying, I will wait until I get sick before I buy health insurance?

So, you know, I think there’s consensus that is emerging that you could do — but that has nothing to do with the costs and controlling the costs over the long run, or — and not a heck of a lot to do with extended coverage.

But I think there’s an emerging consensus as well about providing subsidies for people to get health insurance who can’t afford it, to small businesses to provide it who can’t afford it. So, I think that there is a consensus. And this is where Ted Kennedy is so dearly and acutely missed…

JUDY WOODRUFF: But…

MARK SHIELDS: … because he could seize that kind of an opening.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But, if there is an opening, if there are these emerging consensuses, David, then why is it so hard to do this?

Anxiety about health care overhaul

David Brooks
The New York Times
The country is nervous about the whole government changing, getting too big. It comes in the wake of the takeover of AIG, the takeover of the car companies, radical expansion of government and other things.

DAVID BROOKS: Well, there are three things.

First, the country is nervous about the whole government changing, getting too big. It comes in the wake of the takeover of AIG, the takeover of the car companies, radical expansion of government and other things. So, people are just extremely anxious.

Then, secondly, there's -- people are afraid of cutting benefits. They're going to cut Medicare by $500 billion. They want to cut it in ways that won't hurt health care costs. People are a little dubious.

And then there is the matter of costs Mark eluded to. Barack Obama started this as a cost-control measure. There's no real serious cost control in there. In some ways, he tried to be political smart. And the smart thing was, you can't take away people's existing health care.

And that was politically intelligent. The problem is, if you are going to preserve that much of the current system, you're to the going to be able to control costs.

There was another option sitting out there, this thing called the Wyden-Bennett plan, which had bipartisan support, but would have really altered people's health care to give people more consumer -- consumer choice.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Take away employer plans.

DAVID BROOKS: Take away the employer tax credit...

JUDY WOODRUFF: Right.

DAVID BROOKS: ... and give people a subsidy.

But that really would have shook up the system. And they decided that was too politically difficult. They didn't want something that radical. But, by keeping so much of the current plan, they haven't solved a lot of the current problems -- the current system's problems.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But, Mark, if the president needs to weigh in, does he simply need to reexplain it, or does he have to change his positions?

MARK SHIELDS: I think he has to change his position. I think they -- I think they have to acknowledge -- the president is an effective, brilliant, compelling communicator.

Yet, during the month that he had to make his case, the numbers went down. And I just -- I think, at some point, you -- you have to acknowledge that the message -- you know, the old line Judy about, you know, they don't like the dog food. I mean, when they put out the best can, the best advertising campaign, the best grocery store placement of this brand-new dog food, the dogs didn't like it.

It is not -- the plan as now and -- is not selling. And I think that the president -- it's more than just refashioning the message.

DAVID BROOKS: And the question is, does he go big or does he go small?

There are a number of people like Joe Lieberman saying, no, let's pull back. Let's...

JUDY WOODRUFF: Big meaning more expensive, or more...

DAVID BROOKS: More expansive, or more radical change.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Yes.

DAVID BROOKS: So, the radical change is the Wyden-Bennett thing.

But the -- the small is the more incremental approach, expand coverage, give people some health insurance, seize on the things Mark was talking about that a lot of people agree with, but maybe not try to do everything all at once. Do -- just do some more things, so more people are covered.

Kennedy's health care legacy

Mark Shields
Syndicated Columnist
I mean, that gift, that ability to reach across that line, that you were never a permanent adversary, there were no enemies in Ted Kennedy's.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Mark, you were starting to say that it -- that it does make a difference that -- that Senator Kennedy is gone.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How so, exactly? What -- I mean, we knew that he was not likely to come back...

MARK SHIELDS: No.

But, Judy, what has been mostly ignored in the tributes, which have been remarkable, to Ted Kennedy is that Ted Kennedy, at a fundamental level, was a brilliant politician in a human sense.

Mitch McConnell, with whom he wasn't close, the Republican leader, told a story to Jim Carroll that, when John Barrasso came into the Senate, there was a reception for him in 2007, a senator from Wyoming. Nobody probably knew him, couldn't pick him out of a police lineup.

One Democrat showed up, Ted Kennedy. And he spent all the time talking to Barrasso's family and his children. And that's -- I mean, that gift, that ability to reach across that line, that you were never a permanent adversary, there were no enemies in Ted Kennedy's -- and Ted Kennedy, you know, could -- could understand where somebody was.

And he -- he could grab an opening. If he saw an opening here -- those were big consensuses. Those were a lot bigger points where they agree than the silliness about the death tribunals or for old age and what -- and grandma.

I mean, these are really big policies. And that's where -- that was his gift. And once he made his commitment, he could then sell it to the Democrats, because -- because Ted Kennedy was the tribune of modern liberalism. Nobody could question, say, oh, did he sell out when he collaborated with Nancy Kassebaum on portability, with -- with Orrin Hatch on SCHIP, children's health coverage.

I mean, that is a special gift.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Do you think his presence would have made a -- made a difference...

DAVID BROOKS: Well, he has that special gift, but it was always in favor of smaller and incremental changes.

He has wanted a national health care system for decades, but he hasn't been able to get it because the political culture just hasn't been there, even when you have a majority of Democrats. So, he has had important incremental changes, the children's health care system being, I think, the most important.

But he hasn't -- he hasn't had to get the big national thing. And, personally, for all the gifts, I'm a little dubious he would have made a big difference now, because the opposition is out in the country, and it's just to the plan itself.

Charlie Cook -- I mentioned this last week -- said, it's more likely that there will be 20 House losses than -- than less, losses of seats in the next election.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Right. Right.

DAVID BROOKS: So, if you are going to lose your job, although you love having Ted Kennedy pay attention to you, but it is probably not going to affect your vote.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Speaking of seats...

JUDY WOODRUFF: ... how much difference does it make to Democrats whether they get a successor to Ted Kennedy named quickly, changing the law, which is what Senator Kennedy wanted done? And it's the flip side of what Democrats were asking for not long ago.

Massachusetts special election

David Brooks
The New York Times
The constitution is not a ping-pong ball. You don't change it from year to year depending on your own political advantage. You don't change the rules. The rules are the rules.

MARK SHIELDS: Massachusetts Democrats are redefining hypocrisy politically.

I mean, we have always...

MARK SHIELDS: ... kind of regarded hypocrisy as a given. They changed the law in 2004 to deny a Republican governor the power to appoint the successor to president-elect John Kerry.

And that was Mitt Romney. John Kerry did not win. So, 2009, with the death of Ted Kennedy, now they want -- and replaced it with a special election that was mandated -- now they want to have an interim senator appointed by the Democratic governor, Deval Patrick, while a special election -- the special election, Judy, will not be held, according to the secretary of state, until January 19 or January 26, 2010.

So, that means the Democrats are without that 60th seat and Massachusetts without a -- a senator for all that time. So...

JUDY WOODRUFF: Does that -- does that one vote, David, does that make a lot of difference in the Senate, if the Democrats have 59 votes?

DAVID BROOKS: I actually probably think not. I mean, every vote is important. There are only 100 votes.

But I think that, you know, with the Hillarycare, it didn't even come to a vote. You get a sense of where it going. People do not want to take an uncomfortable vote that's going to cost them seats, unless they are sure it's going to pass. And that probably means by more than one seat.

On the Massachusetts thing, I just find it offensive. I mean, the constitution is not a ping-pong ball. You don't change it from year to year depending on your own political advantage. You don't change the rules. The rules are the rules.

And whoever -- if they name a senator through this interim procedure, that senator will be tainted by the fact that it was so transparently naked a political ploy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Let me ask you both...

MARK SHIELDS: Unless it is somebody of, you know, towering reputation.

DAVID BROOKS: ... talking about Michael Dukakis.

MARK SHIELDS: Michael Dukakis, Paul...

MARK SHIELDS: ... Paul Kirk, somebody like that, who is really respected across the board.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Just to fill the -- fill the seat for the time being.

MARK SHIELDS: Sure.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right.

The story that came out earlier this week, terror suspects being, not only harshly interrogated, but abused, allegedly, at the hands of the -- of the CIA, we're now reading more and more, including a story in The New York Times today, about how the -- the Justice Department and the CIA are maybe even more at war, David, than we thought.

Where is all this headed?

At odds with the CIA

Mark Shields
Syndicated Columnist
It's not simply torture. It's -- it's cruel and unusual treatment as well that is -- that is outlawed. And, so, that is the position.

DAVID BROOKS: Well, nowhere good.

First, I -- I hate the idea of a special prosecutor involved in something so political. Why are they prosecuting the lower-level guys, not the higher-level guys? Why did they not prosecute when career prosecutors looked at it a couple years ago, and now they are prosecuting?

And, then, secondly, on the CIA, I had an old Washington hand say to me the other day, you do not want to go to war with the CIA. They keep every document. They're really good at this. And there's some danger that the Obama administration and the White House is perceived in the CIA as going to war with the CIA.

Now, the Obama administration and the White House did not want to do what -- I think what Justice -- Eric -- Eric Holder wants to do at the Justice Department. He was off on his own. But I think there is a perception in the CIA that they are being attacked, they're not being defended when they're being attacked by outsiders.

And there is a great deal of friction right now, I think, between the CIA and the White House.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How odd to have the White House in one place and the Justice Department over here.

MARK SHIELDS: Well, we didn't have it in the last eight years.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Right.

MARK SHIELDS: I mean, there was no question that the political office...

DAVID BROOKS: Right.

MARK SHIELDS: ... the White House, that the Justice Department were more than chummy. It was a wholly-owned subsidiary.

Eric Holder is an interesting case. He left as deputy attorney general tarnished in large part because he had been too subservient to the Clinton White House on the pardon, the unforgivable pardon, let it be noted, of Marc Rich by President Bill Clinton on the way out the door.

And Holder had raised no objections to it. And he obviously is going to make sure that that doesn't happen again. If he were pleasing the White House right now, he would not be proceeding with this, because the Obama White House would prefer that it go away.

But I don't think there's -- there's any question, Judy, that what is most fascinating, I mean, first of all, you have got the Geneva Convention. You have got the U.N. resolution on -- treaty on...

JUDY WOODRUFF: On what it says about torture.

MARK SHIELDS: On torture, and recommended, championed by Ronald Reagan. And so, that, that puts us in a -- you know, a serious bind.

It's not simply torture. It's -- it's cruel and unusual treatment as well that is -- that is outlawed. And, so, that is the position.

I -- interestingly and fascinating to me is the division between people who have served in uniform and been exposed to it, like Pete Peterson, former ambassador, John McCain, Colin Powell, General Joe Hoar, General Anthony Zinni.

They are -- are totally subscribing to outlawing all forms of torture, whereas the civilian warriors in many cases seem to be showing their toughness by endorsing it.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Meanwhile, I was just going to say, on the left, you have got folks criticizing the Justice Department for not doing enough.

DAVID BROOKS: Right.

The question is how we settle this. You know, what those guys did, when they tell people, we're going to kill your daughters, we're going to rape your daughters, that should never happen.

The question is whether we settle it through political means, which is what I support, or whether we send prosecutors in and settle political differences through prosecutorial means. And that, I'm not totally against it, but it raises a lot of problems, I think.

JUDY WOODRUFF: David Brooks, Mark Shields, thank you both.

MARK SHIELDS: Thank you.