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Shields and Brooks on Kagan’s Confirmation Chances, Jobs Numbers, Byrd’s Impact

July 2, 2010 at 12:00 AM EDT

JUDY WOODRUFF: And to the analysis of Shields and Brooks. That’s syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks.

Gentlemen, good to have you with us.

A lot of ground to cover. We have already talked about the jobs report on the show, but, David, political fallout, the unemployment rate improved, but the hiring is just not happening.

DAVID BROOKS: Right. And I think it’s going to be huge political fallout.

You had over 600,000 people leaving the work force. That suggests — and we’re only producing 80,000 private sector jobs. That suggests the economy really is going to be stagnant for a while. A lot of economists believe the unemployment rate will go up to 10. So, the fall campaign will be waged in a really, really terrible atmosphere.

And then you have got a huge debate opening up between those who think we need another stimulus and those who think it is not the right time. And I think that is the central debate. We have already seen it at the G20. We’re going to see it a lot more domestically.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Is it just the Democrats who get hurt by this, Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: I think, right now, it is, Judy. When the economy is bad, the economy is the only issue. And what you have going into the fall is comparable to what happened at best for the Democrats in 1992.

When the Republicans, when George Bush was running for reelection, the first George Bush, the economy had been down, and it was starting to improve. But he got no boost. He got no lift out of it. And I remember asking his Bob Teeter, his great pollster and campaign chairman. And he said, it takes a full quarter, it takes three months of good news before there is any switch in people’s attitudes.

So, what we’re looking at right now is — these are — October — I mean, this July, three months forward is October. You better get some good news in a hurry. And I don’t know that any is coming. Otherwise, people are discouraged about their own situation, about the direction of the country, their enthusiasm for the Democrats. I just think it’s bad news.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Elena Kagan, the president’s nominee to the Supreme Court, she went before the Senate Judiciary Committee this week.

David, how did she do?

DAVID BROOKS: She did well. By herself — by her standards, she did excellently. She was witty. She was smart. She was charming. I’m not sure she said anything.

There was a one moment that I found interesting. John Roberts had mentioned that he thought the judges were like umpires. And she took issue with that, and said, no, it is a lot more judgment involved.

And Tom Goldstein of SCOTUSblog had a very good post today, pointing out that we have this impression that the court is always 5-4, it is conservative/liberal. But only 20 percent of the cases are a 5-4, and most of those do not break down on ideological lines. It’s Alito against Scalia.

And so that makes it more important to actually know what they are thinking. And — but we have so neutered the process, not only on ideological issues, but on every issue, you can’t actually know what they are thinking on non-ideological issues, on pragmatic issues. And so I thought she did a great job stylistically and for her confirmation, but it is a shame that it has all devolved to this, I think.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Mark, and the conventional wisdom is that, yes, of course she is going to be confirmed, but maybe with fewer votes than Sonia Sotomayor had in the Senate.

MARK SHIELDS: I think there is a good chance she will be confirmed with fewer votes, Judy.

Justice Sotomayor had the advantage of being the first Latina, first Hispanic Supreme Court justice, had — certainly ensured the vote of Mel Martinez of — Cuban American in — from Florida. He has left the Senate since, was succeeded George LeMieux, who — he has political ambitions of his own, wants to establish conservative credentials.

Beyond that, I don’t think she will get — the support, I think, that justice — justice-to-be Kagan can expect from the renegades from the Pine Tree State, Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe…


MARK SHIELDS: … Lamar Alexander and Lindsey Graham, and then four retiring Republican senators, Kit Bond of Missouri, George Voinovich of Ohio, Dick Lugar of Indiana, and Judd Gregg of New Hampshire.

But I don’t see — I think it will be a smaller group than that supporting Justice Kagan.

JUDY WOODRUFF: I’m moving along to a number of different things here, David, but immigration, the president made the first major speech of his presidency yesterday on immigration reform, but hardly anyone thinks it’s going anywhere.

DAVID BROOKS: Right. You have got to have a political strategy. You can’t just — he said some nice things. I agree with him on the need for comprehensive immigration reform, but unless you actually have a strategy and a bill, you’re just not serious about it.

And it is just very hard to see. In the first place, the people who led the immigration reform effort, McCain and Kennedy, are either not with us anymore or are not of a mind to do it. But, secondly and most importantly, the country has shifted. The trust to do something, which wasn’t even there a year or two ago, is certainly not there now.

People want the wall built. They want some border security before they will think about anything else. And they just don’t trust the government to do anything, unless they get that security first. And so, whether you are a Democrat or a Republican, public opinion is much more hostile to the idea of comprehensive reform. And Obama has no, really, answer to that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And no penalty for the Republicans for not wanting this right now?

MARK SHIELDS: Long-term penalty, Judy, because it is the most — the fastest growing constituency in American politics is that of Hispanics.

And I think there’s more than an echo, a hint of anti-Hispanic, anti-immigrant feeling. But I don’t disagree with David. I think the economic mood and reality of the country affects it much as much as anything. People are scared about jobs. Jobs are scarce. For every job that is available, there’s five applicants.

And there is a sense of this is — these people who are undocumented workers, fairly or unfairly, come in here, that they will work for less, and that they’re a threat to jobs that Americans might get. So, the attitude, the magnanimity, the generosity that has characterized Americans on so many issues is not present on this one.

JUDY WOODRUFF: While we’re talking about Republicans, the House Republican leader, John Boehner, was in hot water over not one, but two things, I guess, this week.

Former Republican Congressman, now MSNBC commentator Joe Scarborough made a comment about he’s not a very hard worker. And, then, separately, Boehner himself made a comment comparing the president’s support for financial regulatory reform to trying to kill an ant with a nuclear weapon.

David, is there any fallout from this for John Boehner?

DAVID BROOKS: There may be.

It was interesting to see how quickly the Democrats leapt on it and then how quickly the president leapt on this. There is clearly an effort — the Democrats have a lot of terrible things going against them this fall, but they have one thing going for them, which is the Republicans are still moderately unpopular or quite unpopular.

And so they’re going on the attack. And it was striking to see the president directly going on the attack over this. I don’t think there is a long-term benefit. There is a debate in the Republican Party about how aggressive to be with a counterstrategy, with a counterplatform, some policy substance.

And I think Eric Cantor, who is the deputy for John Boehner, is much more wanting to have many more ideas to promote. Boehner is just say, hey, things are going our way. Let’s not mess it up.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, meanwhile, Mark, the chairman of the Republican Party made a comment yesterday about the war in Afghanistan, saying this was a war of President Obama’s choosing; it’s not something the American people want.

Now, today, the Republican National Committee retracted that.


JUDY WOODRUFF: Does that go anywhere?

MARK SHIELDS: Just one thing, quick thing, on Boehner, and that is that this has been used in the past quite effectively by the Democrats to try and make the face of the Republican Party a Republican officeholder.

It worked very well, you recall, for Bill Clinton’s reelection in 1996. So unpopular were the Democrats able to make Newt Gingrich…

JUDY WOODRUFF: To demonize.

MARK SHIELDS: To demonize — that Bob Dole became almost paralyzed and had to withdraw as Republican Senate leader to distance himself from Newt Gingrich.

I don’t think you can do that with John Boehner. I think what we are talking about is ambition in the Republican ranks right now. I think Eric Cantor’s ambition is not very well clothed. I won’t say it is naked, but it is pretty well exposed.

MARK SHIELDS: But, as far as Michael Steele is concerned, Michael Steele has had a gaffe-filled year. He had his young donors meeting at the lesbian bondage club in West L.A. You must remember that that caused a stir, and caused the finance chief to leave, chief of staff to leave, a political consultant to leave.

He predicted the Republicans wouldn’t win the House in 2010. It hasn’t been sure footing for Michael. I don’t anybody looks to the party chairs to make foreign defense policy statements. And if it weren’t the Fourth of July weekend, I don’t know if calling for his resignation would be in the news, to tell you the truth.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Anything about Michael Steele?

DAVID BROOKS: It was historically inaccurate to say it was Barack Obama’s war. It was stupid. He doesn’t make policy. It was terrible all the way around. Bill Kristol, my friend, called for his resignation. I think he is right. This has to be the last straw.

I know the donors for months have been up in arms about the performance, not only the gaffes, but the administrative performance. To me, this has to be the end.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Speaking of the Fourth of July, a poll I noticed today — Marist College in New York did a poll which showed that a fourth of Americans, when you ask them from what country did the United States win its independence, one-fourth of Americans said they weren’t sure or they didn’t know. And 40 percent of 18-to-29-year-olds in this country said they didn’t know or weren’t sure.

What does that say?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. I think it is an insult to Abraham Lincoln’s leadership of the Revolutionary War.

DAVID BROOKS: No. To me, the substance of it is that we have traded history for social studies in schools, that we don’t do the ABC, here is what happened when.

And I notice this when I talk to kids, including sometimes my own kids. They just don’t get the dates. They don’t get the dates. They don’t have the scaffolding of history. And they do a lot more social structure. They do cultures. They do this. They do that.

But they don’t have the basic — the facts and lineage of what happened when. And, so, those basic facts if, you don’t have the scaffolding, you are not going to remember. You’re not going to know how to organize it and put it all together into some sort of theory.

MARK SHIELDS: We’re a lot more sensitive, but we’re a lot less informed.

What is rather terrifying is the figure you cited about 40 percent of the people under the age of 29. And 80 percent, close to, over — those over 45 do know. There was something going on in schools. The people, the older people are less likely to have gone to college than are the younger ones.

And the idea that somebody is going through college and graduating and not knowing a fundamental fact like that is terrifying and it’s depressing. And…

JUDY WOODRUFF: I mean, when I saw the poll, I looked at it and looked at it again, and checked the validity, checked it with another pollster, and they said, these are real numbers.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes. It’s not good news.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Last thing, Robert Byrd, a giant of the United States Senate, funeral today in West Virginia, Mark, somebody you watched for many years.

MARK SHIELDS: Watched. And when I worked in the Senate in the 1960s, it was the civil rights era, and Bob Byrd was right in the front ranks of the Democratic segregationists who opposed the Civil Rights Act.

And all the segregationists in the Senate then we’re Democrats from the South. And they led the filibuster. And, in 1964, the Republicans nominated a candidate, Barry Goldwater, who was against the Civil Rights Act. And the Republicans — and several Democrats broke ranks to support him, John Bell Williams of Mississippi, Albert Watson of South Carolina, Jesse Helms, later to be a senator of North Carolina, Strom Thurmond.

And along the way, they became Republicans. And Bob Byrd changed his opinions, but stayed a Democrat, and did public penance. I mean, he was a rare political figure in that sense, and he rose to the position of leadership in the Senate by not raising money as other — as become the course of access to power now. You become the principal fund-raiser.

Bob Byrd didn’t do that. He did it by devoting all his time, effort and energy to the Senate. He never thought about a New Hampshire primary, about being on “The Today Show,” or running for national office. He knew it was impossible. His whole life was the Senate.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Is this an end of an era?


And one thing which I really wanted to emphasize, we have so many Harvard-Yale people on the Supreme Court. We put so much emphasis on educational credentials. Here was a guy who went to college after he went to law school. He couldn’t afford to go to college out of high school.

He finally, as a politician, wanted to learn the law, became a lawyer, and then wanted to get the college degree. And it is a reminder of the power of autodidacts. Here was a guy who taught himself history, wrote the book on Senate history. His lectures, speeches were filled — were lectures on history.

And we place so much emphasis on credentials these days, but the power of a lifelong autodidact is far greater than somebody who has a Harvard, Yale, or even a University Chicago degree.

MARK SHIELDS: Populism rears its pretty head, David Brooks.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, we have two pretty heads right now, and we hate to say goodbye, but thank you.

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

DAVID BROOKS: She was talking about Judy and me.