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Shields and Brooks Assess Spy Swap, Midterm Political Maneuvering

July 9, 2010 at 12:00 AM EST
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JIM LEHRER: And to the analysis of Shields and Brooks, syndicated columnist Mark Shields, New York Times columnist David Brooks.

David, was the spy swap thing with the Russians a good deal for America?

DAVID BROOKS: I think so.

You know, after all the things that have been messed up, we rounded up this group. They may not have been the most competent Keystone Cops on Earth, but they — we rounded them up, and had a little problem with the Russian relations, but that seems to have been smoothed over. We got them back, got some people in exchange.

So, I thought, on the whole, it was handled well from start to finish.

JIM LEHRER: Handled well from start to finish, Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: From everything I do know about it, Jim, certainly, I think it was. I think, in a straight player swap, we got a better deal than the Russians did. We got four significant figures, at least one of whom denies he has ever been a spy, but three major players.

And I think everything we were going to find out about these folks, we have known, the folks here. They have been watching them for 10 years. We know who they talked to. We know where they went. And I think it disrupts any sleeper spy operation that they have put together. Now they know that they are on alert, on watch, and under the glare.

JIM LEHRER: But what would you say to the lay folks who say, hey, wait a minute, we spent 10 years and thousands of dollars following these 10 spies, and then we catch them, and we turn them loose?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, what’s the purpose of keeping them? I mean, if they have things, further things to tell us, then there is a purpose for national security reasons to keep them.

But the decision was made, probably correctly, that they had nothing more to tell us. As Mark said, we had been watching them for 10 years. And, meanwhile, to be able to get these four other people back or at least to get them released, that does serve our national interests, because either they were helping us or they were heroic figures. And so you will encourage more people to be like that.

JIM LEHRER: OK.

MARK SHIELDS: And it’s 60 grand a year for each of them, OK? And you want them to be on scholarship here? You know, let them live in Russia, under the enlightened…

JIM LEHRER: Under their scholarship.

(CROSSTALK)

MARK SHIELDS: … under the enlightened leadership of Mr. Putin.

DAVID BROOKS: They’re not going to have fun when they go back to Russia.

MARK SHIELDS: That’s right.

JIM LEHRER: Oh, boy, that’s for sure. That’s for sure.

Mark, President Obama, in Nevada and Missouri the last couple of days, big political stuff, reports today he’s — he’s turned up the rhetoric a little bit, the political rhetoric. How is he doing?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I think the era of the new tone in Washington is over.

Democrats, who are frustrated, nervous and scared stiff about November are thrilled with the new president. This is the…

JIM LEHRER: They want him to do it.

MARK SHIELDS: They want him to generate enthusiasm, intensity and passion in the ranks.

There is no question that he has been faulted in the past, sometimes on this broadcast even, for his cool and cerebral approach to things, including the BP oil spill. No one is accusing him this week of being overly cerebral and cool. He has heated up.

And the problem is, Jim, that Democrats are — lack enthusiasm about November 2 and voting. And if real estate is location, location, location, especially midterm elections are turnout, turnout, turnout. And the enthusiasm seems to be — is by every measurement on the Republican, conservative side right now, throwing the ins out.

JIM LEHRER: Well, David, would you agree that the lack of enthusiasm among Democrats is tied directly to President Obama’s popularity right now?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, no, I don’t think so.

JIM LEHRER: No?

DAVID BROOKS: I think the independents are the big problem. Obama won the independents. And his ratings among independents have dropped I think by 18 percentage points in the past year. And so that has been the shift.

And if you ask independents do you think the Democratic Party is too liberal, the number of people who say yes has gone up by roughly 20 percentage points. So, I think that has been the shift. It is not the Tea Partiers. They have always been against him. It is those independents.

And so Obama is coming out fighting to try to get Democrats. I’m not sure it will help with independents. And, secondly, what has happened…

(CROSSTALK)

JIM LEHRER: Why not? Excuse me. Why not?

DAVID BROOKS: Because I don’t think that sort of partisan tone, the tough talk, is really what appeals to independents. I think what they liked about President Obama was exactly the promise to change the tone, was exactly the sense that he was above some of the politics that we have gotten used to.

And so I think they will be a little uncomfortable with that.

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

But, Mark, is it still true that, as long as the economy remains in a difficult situation, the Democrats or whoever is in charge is going to be in a difficult situation? Does that overlay all of this?

MARK SHIELDS: It is, Jim. That is obviously the atmosphere, the optics and reality of the campaign.

But part of it is that Democrats really feel that Republicans have gotten just a free ride, that they haven’t been held accountable for opposing and trying to thwart everything that the Obama administration has tried to do, whether on the economy or reform of Wall Street, that just they have been — their approach has been one of an all-out opposition.

And the idea of calling them to task for that, and what President Obama has to do — if it is, as you describe it, just a referendum on the Democrats and the party in power, the Democrats are going to be punished.

(CROSSTALK)

JIM LEHRER: Because of the economy.

MARK SHIELDS: Because of the economy and because of the way things are going.

So, the attempt is to say, look, it isn’t simply us you are voting on. It is the other guys, what they stood for in the past, what they stand for now. So, we’re trying to force voters to make this a choice, not just simply, I don’t like the people who are there, and I’m going to throw them out.

JIM LEHRER: David, what is your reading of the traction that is possible to have if Obama and the Democrats can play this right, or better, on this no thing? The Republicans all say no. Just pick up on what Mark just said.

DAVID BROOKS: Well, President Bush tried it. Good luck. I don’t — I just don’t think it will work.

JIM LEHRER: Doesn’t work?

DAVID BROOKS: I think people are voting on the power party in power. And I think they are voting on what has happened.

There has actually been a fair bit of legislation passed. I have talked to a bunch of people, Democrats running for office. And one of the things I have heard a couple times is that the health care doesn’t come up all that much. Whether you like it or not, it’s just not a big issue out there, that the big issue is jobs and the economy and the debt, and those are the big issues.

And I think one of the things that has happened over the last month is that, if you had asked people a month ago, is the economy recovering, they would have said yes. If you ask people today, they do not say yes. There has been a significant erosion of the mood. There’s a special erosion among the business community.

Now, the Republican business community was always against Obama. But I would say Democratic CEOs and Democratic donors are now very disillusioned with the president, fairly or not.

But the mood in the business community is very hostile. And that mood does trickle down. I spoke to one Democratic candidate who said, we didn’t have to offend the business community this way, even though I’m not running with a bunch of CEOs voting for me. But I’m working for people who work for corporations. And that is a negative.

JIM LEHRER: Mark, is the deficit issue that the Republicans are raising and that everybody is raising in some form or another, is that beginning to also — to hurt Democrats as well? In other words, are some of the Democrats also going to have to go on that, pick up that theme as well?

MARK SHIELDS: Some Democrats are obviously nervous about the deficit, Jim. And the argument is that the economy remains the central, dominant, defining problem and issue, human problem in this campaign.

And it appears that the government is limited in what it can do about the economy and joblessness. But they can do something about the deficit. And the deficit appears to bother independents more than it bothers Democratic voters.

JIM LEHRER: You agree with…

(CROSSTALK)

JIM LEHRER: Yes. Yes.

MARK SHIELDS: You are not going to pick up Republicans on the issue. But it is a real dilemma you’re in, because, if you’re trying to do something about jobs, and a jobs program, say infrastructure, where, I mean, we have got thousands of bridges in this country that it affected that could be repaired, well that’s going to run up the deficit.

JIM LEHRER: The deficit.

(CROSSTALK)

MARK SHIELDS: They try and do something about the deficit, does that cut back the spending, I mean, for example, on unemployment benefits, which become held hostage to sort of the deficit fever? So, it’s a — they really do play against each other, as well, politically.

JIM LEHRER: You agree with that?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes.

Well, one of the things that really strikes me, just not on the substance of the stimulus, but on the politics of it…

JIM LEHRER: Sure. Sure.

DAVID BROOKS: … the New York Times/CBS poll asked people, do you think the stimulus package, $787 billion, created jobs? Well, 6 percent say yes. Now, frankly, that’s absurd.

JIM LEHRER: Six percent?

(CROSSTALK)

DAVID BROOKS: You say — you say — it had to have created jobs. Whether you think it was worth it or not, that is different. But that number is a sign that people don’t believe in the policies, and they have a sense of fatalism, that nothing can be done or nothing is being done.

And it’s that — it is the cynicism, frankly, because I’m not a fan of the stimulus package, but it created jobs. There’s no question about it.

JIM LEHRER: Sure. Sure.

New subject. The decision to sue the state of Arizona about the immigration law, is that a good thing to do?

DAVID BROOKS: I don’t think so, and especially the way they have done it.

I understand, politically, why you want to do it. You want to get your voters energized. You also want to prevent other states from doing this. But, to me, to read what the basis for the case, it seems to me extremely weak. I think the states should have the power to choose how they are going to enforce laws.

And to say that this sort of is trampling on federal authority just to me is completely unpersuasive. I think they would have had a better case if they had said this is racial profiling. But that is not the way they decided to do it. And there could be technical reasons they decided to do it or political. They didn’t want to make it a racial thing.

JIM LEHRER: How do you read it?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I read it this way, Jim, that, for 2010, it’s going to be a very difficult issue for Democrats. I mean, it’s — especially Democrats in the West, where the issue is most acute.

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

MARK SHIELDS: I think, for 2012 and beyond, Republicans are playing very much the short end of the field. The Republican Party is in danger, on the cusp of being branded, almost permanently, as an anti-immigrant party and a party that is unwelcoming, quite contrary to the record that George W. Bush proudly proclaimed when he was governor of Texas and his years in the White House.

And the demographic bubble that is out there, I mean, the…

(CROSSTALK)

JIM LEHRER: The Latino — growing Latino vote.

MARK SHIELDS: I mean, Peter Hart has predicted — the Democratic pollster of The Wall Street Journal — that Texas will be a blue state within a generation because of the Latino growth.

And Republicans have to figure out a way, as the electorate becomes less white and more — much of the mosaic racially and ethnically, they have got to figure out a way of appealing to these voters.

JIM LEHRER: Sure.

MARK SHIELDS: They can’t get elected as a white party.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, I completely agree. You cannot — in 10 years, if the Republican Party is the same way, you will not be able to run a national campaign as a Republican.

JIM LEHRER: Quickly to the West — West Virginia. How do you feel West Virginia is handling replacing the late Senator Byrd?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, the governor, who is really in the driver’s seat, Joe Manchin…

JIM LEHRER: Joe Manchin, yes.

MARK SHIELDS: … is interesting.

Jim, the 17th Amendment to the Constitution allowed direct elections of United States senators. It was ratified in 1913. Since that time, nine different occasions, a governor has had the brilliant idea, when a Senate vacancy occurred in his state, to say, all right, to the lieutenant governor or his successor, I am going to resign. And, as soon as I resign, you appoint me.

JIM LEHRER: You pick me.

MARK SHIELDS: You pick me.

JIM LEHRER: You pick me.

(CROSSTALK)

MARK SHIELDS: Eight of the nine have then lost in the next election. OK?

Joe Manchin was urged do this by both the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce and the West Virginia AFL-CIO. And Joe Manchin said, no thank you.

JIM LEHRER: He would just as soon be…

(CROSSTALK)

MARK SHIELDS: Let’s have a real election. And the 2nd of November is when he apparently wants it, which would be the regular date, which puts Shelley Moore Capito, the Republican stalwart, in a difficult position, because she has to decide then, does she run for reelection to the House or does she run for the Senate?

Manchin is in the middle of his term, so he doesn’t have to give up the governorship to run. So, it’s kind of interesting.

DAVID BROOKS: It makes it hard for the Republicans. And if you were thinking how’s it going to affect the balance of the Senate, it makes it better for the Republicans.

JIM LEHRER: How do you — where do you come down on the LeBron James decision?

DAVID BROOKS: I think he betrayed the people of Cleveland by not going the New York Knicks.

JIM LEHRER: Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: I — I really — I thought LeBron James had been an exceptional public figure, had been deft and sure-footed on almost everything he had done.

I thought this was a total deviation, not — in the whole way it was handled. And I feel badly for Cleveland. I mean, remember this. Cleveland had the two pitchers, Cliff Lee and C.C. Sabathia…

(CROSSTALK)

JIM LEHRER: … no matter what.

MARK SHIELDS: … who started in the World Series for the Phillies and Yankees.

And now Cliff Lee is about to go to the Yankees. I mean, everything good in Cleveland has left. And he was the local boy and a hometown pride. And I just feel bad.

DAVID BROOKS: I would like to apologize to the people who are still living in Cleveland. I’m sure they’re probably…

(CROSSTALK)

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

(CROSSTALK)

(LAUGHTER)

MARK SHIELDS: No, I just — I feel bad.

(CROSSTALK)

JIM LEHRER: I just wish we had more time to talk about…

(CROSSTALK)

(LAUGHTER)

MARK SHIELDS: How do you feel about LeBron?

JIM LEHRER: Thank you so much for asking.

(LAUGHTER)

JIM LEHRER: Bye-bye.

(LAUGHTER)