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Shields and Brooks Examine ‘Islamaphobia,’ Obama’s Midterm Tax Cut Debate

September 10, 2010 at 5:53 PM EST
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Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks analyze this week's top political stories, including recent anti-Muslim rhetoric in the U.S. and the debate over extending Bush-era tax cuts.
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JIM LEHRER: And now to the analysis of Shields and Brooks, syndicated columnist Mark Shields, New York Times columnist David Brooks.

David, first, go back to the discussion that Jeff ran on 9/11 and tolerance, et cetera. What was your reaction to that?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, first, on Islamophobia, I think the evidence is at best mixed about the level of Islamophobia in the United States. The polls certainly do suggest an impact, but, in reality, as Nick Gillespie mentioned, the hate crimes are not up. I think most of the people who are the most vitriolic are off on the extreme. And, so, it is mixed.

As far as our ideals go, I wouldn’t say the situation is where we would want it to be. But, as far as history goes, you know, I actually think United States culture is doing reasonably well. In Ray’s piece, we just saw the fact that, for the last nine years, American soldiers and others have been getting killed and wounded by Islamic extremists, Taliban, al-Qaida in Iraq, and so on.

Well, we know what happens to countries in war. In World War II, do you think American attitudes towards Japanese were very good? No, they weren’t. In World War I, attitudes towards the Germans, not very good.

So, it happens when you — in a hot, emotional situation, when people in your country are getting killed, sometimes, prejudices do rise. I think, compared to those levels, or even compared to Vietnam, attitudes toward the Vietnamese, I think it is much, much better. So, my bottom line would be, not where we would want it to be to match our ideals, but, historically, maybe better than in past wars.

JIM LEHRER: Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: I am not as upbeat about it as David. I think that there has been a frenzy of anti-Muslim activity and rhetoric. And it is not just the province of the marginalized, of the few. It has become mainline. It’s become mainline with — for political advantage.

Newt Gingrich, I mean, the man who is described as the brains of the Republican Party, is — is a leading proponent and expropriator of this sort of language. Fifty years ago this coming Sunday, John Kennedy gave his speech to the Houston ministers. And he said in it, he said: “This year, it may be a Catholic whom the finger of suspicion is pointed. In other years, it has been and may some day be again a Jew, a Quaker, a Unitarian, or a Baptist,” and you would add to that a Muslim.

And there is something the president said today I thought was right on point. And that is that there is a sense, when we don’t know other people, and that ignorance is really — and I’m paraphrasing him here — but ignorance is — is not risk-free. It is dangerous.

And that is, I think, an important element here. It shows how little we know about the Muslim world — I think this past week has — and how little, obviously, they know about us in a nation that, as David points out, is 70 percent illiterate and the second poorest nation in the world.

JIM LEHRER: David, the president also said and also it was mentioned in the discussion that a lot of this also rises at moments of legitimate anxiety about other things, which is what we have now about the economy. Do you buy that?

DAVID BROOKS: I do buy that. I think if you go back to, say, the late ’30s, when the Depression was really lingering on, Father Coughlins of the world, I think you definitely get people looking for anxiety. And I think maybe it was Nick Gillespie also who mentioned the hostility toward immigration, which has been rising. And so I do think it’s…

JIM LEHRER: The hostility has been rising, but illegal immigration has…

DAVID BROOKS: Right. Well, this has always been a phenomenon. You go to towns where there are absolutely no illegal immigrants, and hostility to it is very high. So — but it has to do with attitudes toward the sense that we want to protect what we have. And so anything that seems strange, anxiety about that, that rises in times like this.

JIM LEHRER: Let’s move to another thing the president talked about, of course, and he has been talking about it all week, but the news conference today, in particular his message on the economy. Do you think he did himself any good today?

MARK SHIELDS: I think he did. I think it’s — taking the week as a whole, he certainly energized Democrats. I mean, this…

JIM LEHRER: He energized them, you think?

MARK SHIELDS: I think that is what it is about, quite honestly, Jim, is that both the Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll and the Gallup — most recent Gallup poll showed the two parties tied in preference for Congress, OK?

But when it comes down — that is among registered voters. But when it comes down to who is excited, who is intense, who is enthusiastic about voting, the Republicans have a double-digit lead.

MARK SHIELDS: So, he’s got a dispirited Democratic constituency, many of whom have been alienated from him, or many of whom are hurting from this economy. And he’s trying to reach them. And I think that’s what this argument is about.

JIM LEHRER: But how do you think he did on that — on the economic issues today in the news conference, David?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, I’m always of two minds. He — on the news conference and then he gave two speeches this week.

JIM LEHRER: Yes. Sure.

DAVID BROOKS: And I’m of two minds. On the one hand, on the substance, I thought the substance was pretty good. He had some — two new policies this week, one an infrastructure bank, which is surely needed and would be very important, second to help companies invest tax-free. And so that’s sort of a tax break for the rich and the big business.

And then he gives speeches where he attacks politicians who would give tax breaks to the rich and the big business. And, so, the speeches are pretty much standard Democratic rhetoric, attacking John Boehner, attacking the rich. You know, you are getting cheated by the fat cats.

Personally, I’m a little dubious that that will work. And I simply base that on the fact that he did campaign for Jon Corzine in New Jersey when he was running for governor. He campaigned against Scott Brown in Massachusetts. And I just — I can’t think of a time when a presidential speech in a congressional race has trumped 9.6 percent unemployment.

And so I — he can have the rally. And you have seen some uptick in the people who are true believers. But I remain to be convinced it will have any political effect.

MARK SHIELDS: Let me just respond to that for a second, if I could.

JIM LEHRER: You may. Sure.

MARK SHIELDS: David spoke about John Taylor in Stanford and his skepticism about this last week.

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

MARK SHIELDS: And I just wanted to point this out, that Bill Clinton came into office on January 20, 1993. He left on January 20, 2001. He raised taxes to a spectacularly high level, by Republican standards, to 39.6 percent. There were, in Bill Clinton’s eight years, 21,872,000 jobs created in the private sector.

George Bush came in, and, following the lead of Mr. Taylor and others, cut taxes to their lowest, to 33 percent. During George Bush’s eight years in the White House, from January 20, 2001, to 2009, the country lost 672,000 jobs.

JIM LEHRER: And you think there is a direct connection?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I mean, there obviously is, because David told us last week that, if we raised it, it was going to hurt the economy.

DAVID BROOKS: Wait. No.

(LAUGHTER)

MARK SHIELDS: But I would just like to say, the last eight years, we have — they have had their 33 percent tax cut for the last eight years. What did they do with it? How much longer do we have to indulge these millionaires and billionaires before they finally give some crumbs off of their china plates to the rest of us?

DAVID BROOKS: Mark has been losing a lot of sleep on this one.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVID BROOKS: I guess — I guess I — on substance, I sort of agree with Mark. The top tax rate fell from 39 to 36.

JIM LEHRER: On substance, you sort of agree with him.

DAVID BROOKS: OK. This is as close as I can go.

JIM LEHRER: OK.

DAVID BROOKS: Sorry.

JIM LEHRER: All right. OK. OK.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVID BROOKS: And it dropped from 39 to 36. Did that improve business and would it hurt business on a raw sense if we jumped it up from 36 to 39? Frankly, I doubt it. I buy the evidence of the 1990s. I think, if you take marginal tax rates up to 50, then you really do have an effect on incentives. But we’re not close to there.

JIM LEHRER: No.

DAVID BROOKS: So, the question is, substantively, should we do it? So, my answer would be what Peter Orszag’s answer was in The New York Times, which, I think the smart deal is to postpone getting rid of the tax cuts, but then, after two years, get rid of all of them, the middle-class and the upper-class, because we just can’t afford them.

So, why not do it for right now? Because I do think, psychologically, we’re in a very fragile position. And, if, suddenly, small businesses saw their taxes increase, materially, I don’t think it would hurt their incentives. But, psychologically, I do think it would have an effect. And I don’t think it is a risk worth taking. So, I think, in two years, let everybody’s taxes go up, and so we can have some sort of fiscal future.

MARK SHIELDS: Who are we kidding — two years, let them go up? They were going to go up after 10 years. That’s — the Bush tax cuts were supposed to expire, have to expire, by law, at 10 years. All right?

Now, we’re on the cusp by every indication — David agrees…

JIM LEHRER: Sort of. He sort of agrees.

MARK SHIELDS: … of a Republican tsunami — no, a Republican tsunami in November. And we’re going to count in two years that this is going to be right at John Boehner’s — Speaker John Boehner and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell — this is going to be their galvanizing idea, is to repeal the tax cuts, as described.

They will extend them in perpetuity. I mean, there is one organizing principle among all the Republicans, whether they are Tea Parties or just garden-variety Republicans. That is, we don’t raise taxes. Barack Obama has created more private sector jobs in this year, in his administration, than Bush did in eight. So, I don’t know what we are talking about, ways…

DAVID BROOKS: I’m talking about the right policy.

DAVID BROOKS: Again, the political thing is hard, but the right policy is worth talking about. And the right policy is that the tax cuts on the middle class — the tax cuts on the upper class, I think, are like something in the range of $700 billion cost to the deficit. The tax cuts on the middle class, which nobody is willing to talk about, by the way, are in the trillions. And they are simply unaffordable.

MARK SHIELDS: They are.

DAVID BROOKS: And so the politics of that are all terrible. I agree with Mark. But the right policy is to get rid of all of them. Now, again, why not get rid of the — why fight over this — the top 2 percent? Because it does remain a fact that the majority of small business profits are up at that income level. And small businesses are just completely uncertain right now.

And to hit them with this thing, whether it is deserved or not, I do think would have a negative effect on their psychology.

JIM LEHRER: Is this — back to my question on this…

(LAUGHTER)

JIM LEHRER: … is the president making the sale on this? You say he’s right. David says he’s sort of right. Is it working?

MARK SHIELDS: You know, after one week, I don’t think it’s…

JIM LEHRER: OK.

MARK SHIELDS: … there’s been a sea change. We will — I mean, November 2, we will see if he makes some progress. I mean, going into it, I mean, the Democrats were pretty — their — was pretty far down, their spirits were pretty far down. And their prospects weren’t any higher. So…

JIM LEHRER: And do you see any possibility of a change, David?

DAVID BROOKS: There’s a change among already registered Democrats if say, we’re going to — we are not going to give those guys a break at the top. That definitely helps.

JIM LEHRER: That could work?

DAVID BROOKS: Will it persuade the country that Republicans don’t like tax cuts? No, he will not persuade the country of that.

MARK SHIELDS: One thing — one thing that really has fouled up the Democrats, and that is George W. Bush. George W. Bush has been the perfect former president.

He’s been discreet. He’s been nonpartisan. He’s been statesmanlike. The only thing he has done was the Haitian relief thing with Bill Clinton. And the Democrats — because he was the Energizer Bunny in 2006 and 2008.

So, they are searching around, I mean, looking for John Boehner, to make him the villain. I mean, you can’t make George Bush the villain, when he is the reference point on the discussion we had earlier for saying, it’s a war, not against Islam; it is a war against terrorists.

JIM LEHRER: Sure. What do you think about the Obama decision to make Boehner the villain?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, I don’t think it’s going to work, particularly. I don’t think Boehner is that well-known in particular. And, second, he’s not Newt Gingrich.

He’s just — Newt Gingrich walked in with a reputation and an image of a guy who was very conservative, maybe kind of out there, maybe kind of unpredictable. Boehner doesn’t have that. He has sort of a bland image, if anything. So, the act of demonizing him, I don’t think it’s going to fly.

MARK SHIELDS: Plus, John Boehner is a legislator. He is not somebody who is going to blow up the place. He really is a guy that for, 20 years, has been interested in getting things done.

JIM LEHRER: Yes. And we have gotten this done tonight.

(LAUGHTER)

JIM LEHRER: Thank you, both, very much.