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Shields and Brooks on Impact of Health Reform, Politics of 2009

December 25, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT
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JEFFREY BROWN: And now to the holiday analysis of Shields and Brooks, syndicated columnist Mark Shields, and New York Times columnist David Brooks.

Welcome. Happy holidays.

All right, we had a health care vote yesterday. I’m from Boston. I want to try out my Boston Marathon analogy. Sometimes, the winner comes through arms waving, ready to run for more. Sometimes, he or she just falls to the ground exhausted.

What did you see yesterday?

MARK SHIELDS: There was a greater sense of relief than there was a celebration. But, like winning the marathon, there’s just a real and understandable, legitimate sense of accomplishment.

JEFFREY BROWN: David?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. I mean, since — maybe since Woodrow Wilson, presidents have been trying to do this, certainly since Eisenhower. None have succeeded. Obama has succeeded or will succeed. And, so, that’s, politically, a tremendous accomplishment.

I would only point out that you haven’t actually crossed the finish line in the marathon. You’re in the first mile.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes, yes, yes.

DAVID BROOKS: And you have got a lot to go.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, what is to come? I mean, now, of course, they have to get together with the House.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. I think, that part, they will do reasonably well. I can’t imagine anybody is going to hold this up here.

The big issue between the House and the Senate is the financing of things. The House has a provision which would have a surtax on millionaires. The Senate wants to pay for it through premium — high-cost health insurance premiums.

I would be stunned — the whole thing would fall apart if they didn’t go with the Senate’s measure. And that’s substantively a good thing, because that — those — the employer tax exemption for these insurance plans is fiscally insane and bad for the health care system, because it subsidizes these Cadillac plans.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, Mark, all…

MARK SHIELDS: I disagree. I disagree.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes, go ahead.

MARK SHIELDS: I think that there will be a mix of financing. I think there will be — there will be a tax on individuals.

And I think there will be a tax on the higher — the real Cadillac plans. I think to call the plans that many organized labor workers have negotiated Cadillac plans is a misnomer and an embellishment.

But I also think that there will be a fight over the trigger on public option and whether there will be. And I think there is a good chance they will come out of it with a hard trigger, if, in fact, the expenses of health care exceed the CBO estimates. I think there is a very good chance that that is acceptable to both sides.

JEFFREY BROWN: But is the fight now — I mean, Republicans are quite clear. They’re not going to — they’re not there for anything, right?

MARK SHIELDS: No.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, the fight is among Democrats.

MARK SHIELDS: The fight is among Democrats and competing visions. The House bill covers more. It’s more Democratic with a large D, traditionally speaking. It was a — it was a consensus coalition. You saw it put together in the Senate.

Nancy Pelosi was shrewd enough as speaker of the House to keep it all in her office. In the Senate, it was pretty open, pretty visible, and probably not what our teachers in problems of democracy or American civilization had in mind in high school when they taught us.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, but some of the things in the House bill are actually better than the Senate bill.

MARK SHIELDS: I agree.

DAVID BROOKS: There’s the exchanges, which are national in the House bill, more competitive.

But if they have a fight over the — this tax exemption, to me, that would be a big deal, because, first of all, I don’t think you can pay for it, especially over 20 years, without the full tax on all those plans. That tax, because it’s not really indexed for inflation, raises $1.3 trillion in the second 10 years.

If they’re going to say this balances the budget, that’s just a ton of money they need. And they need to tax it all. And, secondly, I think there’s a consensus, at least among health care economists, you have got to raise taxes from within the health care system, because nothing else will keep up with the rising costs.

So, if there really is resolve to fight this, especially on the part of the unions — and there probably is — that could make it trickier than maybe I anticipate.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, as we sit here at year’s end, where does this fight leave — particularly this fight — leave the parties? One thing that happened this week was a defection from a Democrat to Republican.

MARK SHIELDS: A freshman Democrat from northern Alabama, Huntsville, Alabama, Parker Griffith, who the Democrats have been — a very competitive seat, retiring Congressman Bud Cramer, who had been a Democrat, was a Democrat. The race to succeed him, both parties went in heavily. Democrats spent a million dollars to win that seat.

And any time anybody leaves a party, and especially condemns the party or — or indicts his party on the way out, as he did, and joins the opposition, it’s — it’s not insignificant. Mr. Griffith, who probably nobody had heard of before this week, tried to cast it in sort of moral terms, that it was a philosophical move.

JEFFREY BROWN: That went over well with his colleagues.

MARK SHIELDS: It’s about self-preservation. I mean, it makes you yearn for the unvarnished candor of Arlen Specter, who, when he — when he left, Arlen Specter became a Democrat, Senate from Pennsylvania, earlier this year, conceded very frankly he couldn’t win the Republican primary, he could not win in November as an independent, so he became a Democrat. And there was something — there was no Paul on the road to Damascus or some epiphany he when through. And I think this is all about self-preservation. But the Democrats have become the majority party in the House of Representatives by winning seats that they weren’t supposed to win in the border states and in the South. So, this — in this sense, it’s — it may not be a harbinger, but it’s not good news for the Democrats.

DAVID BROOKS: There are a bunch of retirements on the Democratic side. All the signs that it’s going to be a tough year for 2010 for Democrats, they’re all out there.

And, you know, one suspects — they won a lot of those seats in North Carolina and the South and the near South — and they’re going to lose a ton of them, maybe 20 seats in those areas. And they’re Democrats, and they’re looking at political suicide in the face.

I just wanted to say one larger thing about the parties and how they’re reacting to this today. I really think this health care plan is just a huge event in our political history. You know, when the New Deal was a — successful programs, it created, really, Democratic majorities for a long time. The Great Society, on the other hand, created Republican majorities for a great long time.

I think, however this health care bill works out, it’s going to have maybe not quite as seismic effect, but a huge effect. If it’s a success, it will become a sacred program. And Democrats will have a big thing to brag about.

If it’s a failure, we could be entering a Republican era.

JEFFREY BROWN: You’re not going — you’re not putting on the crystal ball and tell us how it’s going to go?

DAVID BROOKS: I mean, I lean slightly one way, but I do think we should think of it in those terms.

JEFFREY BROWN: Consequences are that big?

MARK SHIELDS: The consequences are enormous. And I think it — I think it will be a success. I mean, we have — this has always been a difficult thing, and why it’s a signal achievement for Harry Reid, for the Democrats in the Senate, for the Democrats in the Congress, in the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, for the administration, is this.

This — this is an item, an issue, that has never come to the floor for a vote under Richard Nixon, under Bill Clinton, under Harry Truman. Now it’s passed both houses. That’s important.

But the important thing to remember is this. We passed Medicare in the middle of the 1960s, which was probably the apex of American confidence. We were doubling the nation’s gross national product in that decade. And there was just a sense of unlimited possibilities.

To pass this, this major, major difference, in a time of uncertainty, which itself produces uncertainty to — among people, 80 percent of whom have health care — 83 percent of have health care — is — is a signal, signal achievement, to do that, because American confidence and optimism are among their all-time lows.

DAVID BROOKS: But they only did it by — with 35 or 45 percent support, depending on how you ask the question, with the majority opposing, which is a risky thing to do.

And the other thing I would say is, in the short term, whether you oppose the bill or support the bill, there is, I think, even the supporters acknowledge, a short-term problem, which is, the benefits, a lot of the benefits, don’t kick in immediately. The taxes do.

Second, you’re going to have this increase in demand for health care without an increase in supply. That’s probably going to drive up costs, at least in the short term. And, so, that’s a political problem for 10 years.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. I want to get to, it’s the end of — end of the year, end of the first year for President Obama. So, I want to talk a little bit about how you see his first year.

Jim asked the president in that interview earlier this week. So, let’s take a look at the — at the president’s answer to get us started.

U.S. PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I think that we have managed an economic crisis of monumental proportions, two wars, a whole host of other challenges, very well.

I am entirely dissatisfied with where we are right now in terms of jobs, and the fact that families out there on the eve of Christmas are still really worried about being able to pay the bills or send their kids to college or have health care for themselves. And so I don’t pat myself on the back at the end of this year.

But what I do have confidence in is that we’ve made good decisions, that we’ve applied sound judgment to some very difficult situations, and that if we stay on a path where we are working hard, maintaining a sense of possibility for the future — we’re willing not to defer tough decisions around health care or energy or education, so that somebody else deals with them — that America will be strong again.

And I think that — I think I have shown this year that I can make hard decisions, even when they’re not popular, and that I take a long view on these problems. And I frankly think that that’s what America needs right now.

JEFFREY BROWN: David, his assessment of himself and your assessment of him.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, I more or less agree with him.

I mean, the emphasis on the decision-making structure, the soundness of the decisions, the judgment, that’s so quintessentially Obama. I mean, he’s not talking about some impassioned thing for the — crusade for the American people. It’s about his very slow and deliberate decision-making process.

JEFFREY BROWN: The process?

DAVID BROOKS: And he’s got that. And I give him credit for that.

I mean, he’s gotten — some things, they failed on. The Middle East peace process was a failure, a setback. Cap and trade is probably going nowhere. Financial regulations, Iran, that hasn’t worked out.

But, on the other hand, as he says, we have come out of the worst of the financial problem. He did pass health care. He had a very sound process deciding Afghanistan. I would have to give him a B or B-plus, which is roughly the range he gives himself. And so I think you would have to regard it as a successful year.

JEFFREY BROWN: Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I mean, the president lays down the premise, which was that he did accept — come to office at a time, arguably the worst economic time since the Great Depression, and with two wars, and a financial crisis of just historic proportions.

And he has dealt with them. I mean, the fact that he got up every morning is probably impressive and kept going, and still has his equanimity in his interview with Jim.

But, at the same time, he initiated two major objectives. I mean, health care is enormous, as is climate change. And I agree with David that climate change is probably in pretty precarious shape right now. But he’s going to achieve health care. And, you know, I — he gave himself a B-plus, not in Jim’s interview. And he came back.

And I was surprised at that, because, if he had been grading me in my academic years, I might have been a serious contender for class valedictorian, because I think he was a little — a little easy and soft on himself. And I was surprised that he didn’t have…

JEFFREY BROWN: You were not the valedictorian?

MARK SHIELDS: I wasn’t valedictorian, and was never a threat to be.

But I was surprised that he didn’t say, I will leave that to the ultimate authorities.

DAVID BROOKS: At Harvard, a B-plus is practically an A.

MARK SHIELDS: I was going to say…

DAVID BROOKS: The grade inflation is so bad up there.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes, grade inflation, it is. It is a generational thing. But, you know, the interesting thing to me is this. His job rating today in the Gallup poll is 50 percent favorable. That’s higher than that of Ronald Reagan, who went on to win 49 states three years later.

And it’s lower by 21 points than George Herbert Walker Bush and lower by 10 points by Jimmy Carter was at this time, both of whom were denied a second term. So, when he talks about the long term, he’s talking about 2012, whereas Democrats who are nervous right now are on the ballot in 2010.

JEFFREY BROWN: Was it a good year for American politics?

DAVID BROOKS: Not exactly. We have had a bad 10 — a bad decade for American politics.

JEFFREY BROWN: Oh, you’re going all — you’re going decade.

DAVID BROOKS: I’m going — maybe a bad two centuries. Aside — aside from that, it’s been fine.

JEFFREY BROWN: Two centuries?

DAVID BROOKS: No. I mean, you know, the anger after — especially after health care, is worse than ever. He promised a new age: We’re not red America. We’re not blue America. That part hasn’t exactly worked out — not his fault, particularly. Congress — I mean, as long as you have got a Congress run by John Boehner and Nancy Pelosi, you’re going to have a partisan Congress. You’re going to — as long as you promote your leadership on the basis of fund-raising, you’re going to have this.

And, so, I don’t particularly blame him, but it hasn’t worked out.

JEFFREY BROWN: Bad, good year, indifferent year?

MARK SHIELDS: It was not a — it was not a happy year. I mean, the pledge of the campaign to be transparent obviously couldn’t be fulfilled on health care — or, to the degree it was, it was a problem — and to bring a new era in Washington. That’s — I think that’s the biggest disappointment.

I do not fault the president for that. I think that it is a decision that has been made on the other side. The House has never been a place of great collegiality. And Nancy Pelosi did, I think, a remarkable job in passing climate change and passing health care.

But the Senate is really a far more brutal place than it’s ever been. They have used the filibuster more in this session of Congress, Jeffrey, than they did in the entire decade of the 1960s, when we were changing…

JEFFREY BROWN: Really?

MARK SHIELDS: … civil rights law. Yes.

That is — that is really, I think, a commentary, when everything has to get 60 votes. I mean, a Mother’s Day resolution has to get 60 votes at this…

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. That’s a bit of a bummer, but to end the year on.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes. Well, David…

JEFFREY BROWN: When we next gather…

MARK SHIELDS: George III was — he was a little concerned about that.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. When we next gather, it will be a new year, a new decade.

For now, happy holiday. Thanks a lot.

MARK SHIELDS: Thank you very much.