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Shields, Brooks Reflect on Health Care Speech, Reform Push

September 11, 2009 at 3:41 PM EDT
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Columnists Mark Shields and David Brooks discuss the week's news, including President Obama's health care speech and renewed reform push.

JIM LEHRER: And finally tonight, the analysis of Shields and Brooks, syndicated columnist Mark Shields, New York Times columnist David Brooks.

Mark, did the president’s speech change the debate in any important way?

MARK SHIELDS: Yes, it did, Jim. First of all, it’s reclaimed the terms of the debate from what happened in August. He has established ownership, admitted that he owned a plan…

JIM LEHRER: “My plan.”

MARK SHIELDS: … “my plan.” He got specific. And for the Democrats, who were somewhat — who were with him but had some doubts, he gave an energy to it, a sense of urgency, and a passion that replaced an earlier coolness and an earlier vagueness.

And I would say, the most important thing he did, in terms of the country, in reaching the country, is he did establish that this was a moral issue. And he reclaimed that.

JIM LEHRER: And you think people bought that?

MARK SHIELDS: I do. I think it’s a different way of looking at it. Instead of simply asking, “What’s in it for me?” he said, “What’s in it for us as a people?” And we, in fact, as a communal nation value justice. And I think that’s an important value, and I think it’s important politically to have that high moral ground.

JIM LEHRER: Do you think it’s changed things, David?

DAVID BROOKS: I do. I think he’s actually moved votes. You take just one case, a guy named Jim Cooper, who’s a moderate Democrat from Tennessee, who’s been very active in health care for 20 years. He had opposed the House plan that had come out of the — or was coming out of the House, and he’d written publicly about why he opposed it.

I called him the day after Obama’s speech, and he was very excited. He thought the president had made real progress in allaying a lot of his concerns and adjusting some of the policies so it would be fiscally responsible, so it would address things.

And so he and I think a lot of the Blue Dogs, the moderate Democrats, I think were quite pleased. And so the president really secured that part of the party.

JIM LEHRER: Do you think he’s won any support among Republicans or changed or softened the opposition in any way?

DAVID BROOKS: Not yet. But, you know, it’s possible he could get a few in the Senate. I say it for this reason. You know, to me, the key part of the speech was where he said, “I will not allow this to increase the deficits by one dime, now and forever.”

Now, to get to that deficit neutrality level, the House bill pretty much goes away, because that just blows a hole in the deficit. You start with the Senate bill. But then you’ve still got to make some changes to bring it within that cost structure.

And that means a whole series of concessions, I think, on the employer tax exemption, maybe even on Medicare — I mean, on malpractice. And so if there’s movement over the next couple of weeks, it’s possible you could pick up a couple of Republicans, George Voinovich or Susan Collins, a few. You’re not going to get a lot, in any case.

Bye bye to bipartisanship

Mark Shields
Syndicated Columnist
What August established is that this is going to be passed by Democrats and not by Republicans.

JIM LEHRER: But he -- what I was reading today, Mark, is that the White House strategy is they want to get the 60 votes. They want to have -- they don't want to do some machination that doesn't require 60 votes. They want to get it -- so that means you've got to have some Republicans, right? You've got to have at least one or two.

MARK SHIELDS: You have to get -- at least three or four Republicans. I think, Jim, what August established is that this is going to be passed by Democrats and not by Republicans. Whatever the August exercises we went through in this country, with the town hall meetings and the opposition, the fierce opposition expressed to the plan, it has put the fear of God into Republicans.

I mean, you take somebody like Chuck Grassley of Iowa who may, you know -- I think, based upon his career, was seriously interested in doing something. He was, according to those who were there, intimidated and terrified by what he saw at those town meetings in Iowa.

And it's now that the Republican base of the party is fiercely against this. The Democratic base of the party is fiercely for it. So the Democrats' interest is in getting it passed early, soon, and getting back to the economy, because this is a divisive issue, and it does, in fact, threaten support...

JIM LEHRER: Get it over with, in other words?

MARK SHIELDS: It threatens support among the elderly, among independents. They're going to have to pass this with Democrats. Democrats are thrilled about passing it, but Republicans are letting their Republican representatives know that they are very much opposed.

JIM LEHRER: David, the Boston Globe on its editorial page today, among many others, said that the Joe Wilson "You liar!" shout to the president on Wednesday night, it was a gift to President Obama. Do you agree?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, I think Republicans knew that immediately. The man -- you may disagree with him, but he's the head of state. He's our president. He's all of our presidents. And there's a certain matter of decorum.

This is not Britain. This is not Italy. This is not Japan or Korea. We do not have a parliamentary system where it's OK to shout at the leader because he's a head of state as well as the head of the government.

And it was just -- I know a lot of people who, frankly -- this is the company I keep -- but they don't pay -- they're not going to watch the speech. They don't pay that much close attention. They don't know about comparative effective new research, but they do know about Joe Wilson now, and they do know what that Republican did. And they've forced him to apologize, but they really -- the Republican leadership really needs to force him to apologize on the floor.

JIM LEHRER: Well, you think so? On the floor of the...

DAVID BROOKS: I think -- I mean, he's getting support from his district, but just for the good of the party, I think they really need to get him out on the floor to apologize.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree?

Wilson hurt the GOP

David Brooks
New York Times
Suddenly he behaved in a way that normally there would be just so many unconscious barriers -- you would never scream out "You lie!" to a president right there in that room.

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I do. I'd just point this out, Jim. There were certain criticisms that could be made of the president's speech on Wednesday night and his plan, the cost of how he's going to pay for it, $500 billion in fraud and waste, which seems to have a resonant echo from earlier times. If there's $500 billion there, why haven't we got rid of it already? What are you...

DAVID BROOKS: In Medicare, yes.


MARK SHIELDS: Yes, I mean in Medicare. I mean -- but, you know, and other things. The Republicans never got the chance. I mean, the opposition never got a chance to make the case because of Joe Wilson. Joe Wilson became the face and the voice of the Republican Party, much to their detriment.

I think he's a fifth columnist. I think he's a saboteur, planted...

JIM LEHRER: He's really a Democrat?

MARK SHIELDS: ... by the Democrats. He has to be. I mean, how else could you explain it? I mean, what could -- he's doing the party just enormous harm. John Boehner, on a one-on-one session -- David's right -- the leader said, "You've got to go out and publicly apologize." "No, I don't. You know, the support I'm getting and the money that's coming in, and, you know, I've done it." And plus he probably didn't want to be on tape apologizing, which we do televise House floor proceedings.

So every hour that it's still alive hurts Republicans, because it's a party -- I mean, whatever you say about John Boehner and Mitch McConnell, they're not household words and household faces. And so you don't need Joe Wilson. You need him to take, as Mark Russell called, his five seconds of fame and get it over with.

JIM LEHRER: There's been a lot of commentary around all of this, that this is really indicative of a new kind of standard of discourse, negative standard of discourse in the country. Do you think -- is there any deeper meaning here or just one man who got up and yelled?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, it didn't come out of nowhere. I mean, there are certain unconscious standards. We all behave in certain ways. You go to a funeral; you behave in a certain way. You go to a church; you behave in a certain way. And these are deep and inbred. You don't have to think about it.

But there's been this broad corrosion over many years in the way people talk in private, and then so suddenly he behaved in a way that normally there would be just so many unconscious barriers -- you would never scream out "You lie!" to a president right there in that room. But those barriers have been eroded. He went further than anybody has gone before or at least recently at least...

The state of political discourse

Mark Shields
Syndicated Columnist
[I]t's reached the point where if you and I -- you're my political adversary. You're not simply wrong; you have to be evil.

JIM LEHRER: He was pushing an envelope that was already going there, is what you're saying.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, I mean, and it's obvious, if you hang around Congress, the conversations you hear are just of that nature.

JIM LEHRER: Do you feel the same way?

MARK SHIELDS: I think it's a coarsening of our political language, our political life. I think it's a coarsening of our national life. I mean, I think we see things on television and public entertainment that we didn't see a generation ago.

But I think it is true, and it's reached the point where if you and I -- you're my political adversary. You're not simply wrong; you have to be evil. You know, you don't have any moral standing. I mean, that -- and that's -- rather than prove you wrong or encourage you to come to my side, my approach is to demonize you and destroy you. And I really think that it's a tragic -- a tragic reality.

JIM LEHRER: That's new? You think that's a new problem?

MARK SHIELDS: I think it has developed, and I think it has not stopped. I mean, I was hoping that the president -- it was part of Barack Obama's theme. And I don't think he can be accused of that at all, but it was part of his campaign theme. And it did touch people. People did respond to it.

DAVID BROOKS: I would just say, it's cyclical. I mean, we have periods of high polarization in American history. I mean, Alexander Hamilton was shot by a political opponent. That's reasonably polarizing. Abraham Lincoln, a polarizing period. Then we have had a high polarizing period.

I personally think we've now sort of bifurcated, where a lot of the country has lost some of the polarizing zeal, but there are minorities on each side who are watching Fox or MSNBC who are still in that high polarizing mode, and there are incentives for them to stay there.

Troop increase in Afghanistan?

David Brooks
New York Times
The president supported this idea of increasing the troop levels, and presumably will do it again, but he never really explained why. In fact, he minimized the expense and the commitment.

JIM LEHRER: Quickly, before we go, what do you make of Carl Levin's speech today on the floor of the Senate about Afghanistan and let's hold off sending more troops?

MARK SHIELDS: I think it reflects, first of all -- not to be cynical -- but the political reality that you're not going to have a battle over troop numbers in Afghanistan at a time when you're trying to pass health care. I mean, I think that's -- I think that's -- the administration does not want the request to be made formally by General McChrystal for increased numbers, according to my own reporting.

But, secondly, I mean, Carl Levin is an enormously respected man. He's not ever given to cheap shots. He's very thoughtful. He's a very serious legislator. What he says reflects not only his own judgment, which is respected, but I think it reflects widely the skepticism and doubt about the precise mission and what is achievable.

How many troops are we really asking for? How long are we asking them to stay there? I mean, I don't think that's been made clear by the president or anybody else.

JIM LEHRER: Well, along the lines of what these three editorial page writers, editors told Jeff a while ago.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, and partly I blame the president. The president supported this idea of increasing the troop levels, and presumably will do it again, but he never really explained why. In fact, he minimized the expense and the commitment, that we were there and we were doing real nation-building. He never really would explain that, so now that's coming back to haunt them.

And then the second thing is the Karzai re-election, which has delivered a serious body blow to morale in this country. And I would hope the Karzai government is getting the message. They certainly pay attention to this stuff.

And if they want the U.S. to stay, if they don't want the Taliban to take over and destroy their country again, well, then this is something they have to pay attention to. I happen to think Senator Levin is wrong. Nonetheless, I hope it's a signal that Karzai and the people around him receive.

MARK SHIELDS: It's awfully tough to ask Americans to fight and to die for a government -- I think Bill Schneider put it this way -- that steals elections. And this election was rigged. Whether it was stolen, I don't know. But, I mean, when you get 500 votes in a precinct and 500 votes for Karzai, and you get 400 votes in a precinct and 400 votes for Karzai, that's beyond mathematical rarity.

JIM LEHRER: Yes. And the public, you think, is where you all are on this, right?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, the public is wavering; there's no question the polls have been sliding. And the president really needs to explain Afghanistan. I think he needs to explain the effect on Pakistan if the Taliban were to take over. When this health care is over, he's clearly got to explain the policy, which he hasn't done.

JIM LEHRER: If it's a war of necessity, he's got to explain necessity, OK.

MARK SHIELDS: That's right. Yes, he is the one who called it a war of necessity. And the burden is very much with him. And Democrats have left on this. I mean, three out of four Democrats no longer support...

JIM LEHRER: They're already gone, OK. David, Mark, thank you both.

MARK SHIELDS: Thank you.