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Shields and Brooks on Tax Cuts, Debt, Lame-Duck Congress, Bush Book

November 12, 2010 at 6:15 PM EDT
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Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks sort through the top political stories, including the debate over extending tax cuts, prospects for the lame-duck Congress, criticism of debt commission ideas and former President Bush's new book.
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JIM LEHRER: And to the analysis of Shields and Brooks, syndicated columnist Mark Shields, New York Times columnist David Brooks.

First, Mark, on the don’t ask, don’t tell issue, do you think the lame-duck Congress will take that up?

MARK SHIELDS: No, I don’t, Jim.

JIM LEHRER: Why not?

MARK SHIELDS: I don’t think that the position is there for the White House. I don’t think the support is currently there.

JIM LEHRER: Yes. Do you agree?

DAVID BROOKS: I agree. It is an incredibly full session, tax bills, maybe a doc fix, the Medicare thing, AMT. There is a lot of stuff piling up. It is tough for me to see them getting to it.

JIM LEHRER: Yes. You agree that there’s — let’s move to what is — what is likely to happen, if anything, during the lame-duck session.

MARK SHIELDS: I think that the middle-class — and beyond — Bush-era tax cuts will be addressed and they will be extended. I think unemployment…

JIM LEHRER: Permanently or temporarily or somewhere…

MARK SHIELDS: I think that is to be negotiated. But there is a certain dissension in the ranks of Democrats, because they feel that the White House has already shown an over-willingness to agree to their extension, rather than to drive a hard bargaining position.

But, beyond that, I would say unemployment benefits will be extended. They will be there. They are important to the economy. They are important to the people who receive them. And the items that David just had mentioned as well.

JIM LEHRER: What do you think will happen on the middle-aged — middle-aged.

(LAUGHTER)

Let’s start all over again. Where do you come down on the taxes issue and what they will do?

DAVID BROOKS: I’m for a tax on the middle-aged, by the way. I should just mention that.

(LAUGHTER)

MARK SHIELDS: You will be there one day.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVID BROOKS: Anything over 70.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVID BROOKS: You know, there was — the original tax structure was, if are you over $250,000, then that’s — Obama wanted to raise your taxes and then preserve.

JIM LEHRER: Sure.

DAVID BROOKS: Then you began to see a couple weeks ago that moving, maybe $500,000, maybe $1 million. And now, as far as I can see, that is all washed away. And the most likely outcome is that we will have a temporary extension of all the Bush tax cuts straight up and down the income ladder.

And, as Mark indicated, the most interesting thing that has happened this week on this front is the restiveness in liberal ranks, that there is a sense, I think: We’re not quite sure we can trust President Obama anymore. Really, he has not fought for us. We’re not quite sure if he is really with us.

And so there’s a great deal of, I think, efforts behind the scenes going on to sort of stiffen him, to show, we will fight you if you walk away from the left.

JIM LEHRER: Sure.

DAVID BROOKS: I think that is why Nancy Pelosi has so much support in becoming the minority leader. And so that dynamic has become a very interesting dynamic of people, enforcement on the left, really.

JIM LEHRER: Do you see the same dynamic at work?

MARK SHIELDS: I do. Just one correction.

JIM LEHRER: OK.

MARK SHIELDS: President Obama doesn’t want to raise the taxes on those over $250,000.

DAVID BROOKS: OK.

MARK SHIELDS: He wants it to return to where it was under the prosperous years of Bill Clinton.

DAVID BROOKS: By raise, I meant going from 36 to 39. Whatever Mark wants to call that…

DAVID BROOKS: That’s fine.

MARK SHIELDS: No, no, 35, 35.

JIM LEHRER: The dynamic question.

MARK SHIELDS: Well, but I think that is important, because that has been the argument, whether we are returning to what is the norm…

JIM LEHRER: Sure.

MARK SHIELDS: … or whether we are going to keep these artificially reduced rates for billionaires, that Donald Trump can continue to prosper.

DAVID BROOKS: I was just reporting the facts.

MARK SHIELDS: Do I want to get — the dynamic? The dynamic, Jim…

JIM LEHRER: Among the liberals.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes.

Among the liberals, there — I think Speaker Pelosi’s position has been strengthened by a growing restiveness toward the White House. Just exactly who is Barack Obama? What is he going to do. I mean, the question has been, what will Barack Obama do with this reduced majority in the Senate, with the loss of this majority in the House?

Will he become Bill Clinton, or will he become Harry Truman? And Democrats don’t know. And they want to — especially liberal Democrats want to be sure that Nancy Pelosi is the cop on the beat…

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

MARK SHIELDS: … I mean, that she will hold his feet to the fire.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. A couple days ago, there was a story in The Huffington Post, I think by Howard Fineman, saying that David Axelrod had basically caved in, or was preparing everybody for a cave-in on this tax issue.

And I was struck by the emotional fervor on the left reacting against that, which was almost — there was almost some anger involved. And so a lot of the spirit that has unified the Democratic Party, I think, is not there. And it makes it very interesting for the Obama administration, because, obviously, they have to win back independents in the Midwest, but also have to keep this flank happy. So, it makes their job incredibly complicated.

JIM LEHRER: Meanwhile, the leadership situation on the Democratic side in the House. Nancy Pelosi says: I want to keep the job.

There are some rumblings. What — read that — read them for us.

MARK SHIELDS: Well, there is some open dissent and criticism from…

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

MARK SHIELDS: … and from previous supporters.

I mean, Mike Capuano of Massachusetts, who had been in charge of Nancy Pelosi’s transition when she became speaker, congressman from Somerville, who Nancy Pelosi endorsed when he ran for the Senate, went up and campaigned for him in the race that Scott Brown won, Ted Kennedy’s seat, he’s come out saying that they got to change; you lose this many games, you fire the manager.

Mike Quigley, who took Rahm Emanuel’s seat in Chicago, said she’s politically toxic. But there is — you can see among Democrats the point we made about she’s the cop on the beat. But there’s a recognition of what she’s done. I mean, she has made the Democratic Party in the House the majority.

Now the question is, did she contribute in making it the minority, and is she the person to bring it back? And at the core of everything, beyond appreciation, respect and admiration for what she’s done, every leader has to have the ability now, in the contemporary standards, to raise money. And no — Nancy Pelosi is phenomenal at raising money. And she does it without compromising her positions. And I think that’s part of her appeal.

She will win next Wednesday.

JIM LEHRER: She will win if she runs?

MARK SHIELDS: She will win if she runs next Wednesday.

JIM LEHRER: Well, what about the number-two and -three positions, which are also — of course, there’s Steny Hoyer, who was the majority leader, and now he would become the minority whip. And that job is already taken by Jim Clyburn. And he says he still wants that job.

What do you — how do you see that?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, I don’t know what Mark has heard. I heard that, secretly, Pelosi would like to have Hoyer, who has been her number two, is the more moderate, has — he has a more moderate side.

And so I guess I think, if she wants it, she will get it. What is interesting to me is how — she is phenomenally good at counting votes, phenomenally smart. So, I assume she can arrange this thing.

The parliamentary dynamics, though, are fascinating to me. I covered Margaret Thatcher getting deposed. And there was a truism in that race within her own party in the Parliament. The truism, which I hear in this race, too, or in the Pelosi race, is the person who sticks in the knife never wins the election.

And, so, if somebody — if somebody is going to take down Pelosi or Hoyer, whoever, they have got to essentially commit career suicide. And nobody is willing to be that person, naturally enough.

And then the other thing we said is, there’s — people are upset maybe with keeping the same team, but that doesn’t mean they have got another team. And so I don’t…

JIM LEHRER: Who would you replace her with?

DAVID BROOKS: Right. But — there is a guy named Heath Shuler, but he doesn’t really represent where the Democratic Party is now. So there is no — really, no alternative has stepped up.

JIM LEHRER: How do you feel about the Hoyer-Clyburn thing? Could that get nasty?

MARK SHIELDS: It could get nasty. That’s what the speaker — in talking to the speaker’s people today, that is what she is most concerned of avoiding, is blood on the floor.

I mean, the problem is, there’s four positions in the Democratic leadership when they control the House, which they still do, theoretically, until January. That is now reduced to three. So, there’s four people for three positions.

JIM LEHRER: It really is a musical chairs.

MARK SHIELDS: So, it is. And Jim Clyburn has expressed reluctance to go back to being the Democratic House Caucus chairman, because he already had that position before he was elevated to whip. But Steny Hoyer, who has been majority leader — there’s no more majority leader — he has been whip before. He was whip when Nancy Pelosi was minority leader. So, there is a real tension there.

JIM LEHRER: Sure. All right, what do — speaking of tension, what do you make of the debate — the deficit commission chairmen’s proposal for how to solve the deficit problem in the United States of America at the federal level?

DAVID BROOKS: First, I thought it was an excellent start to a discussion. It had a wide range of options, many of which are extremely painful. Those of us who own homes don’t want to give up our mortgage interest deduction. I’m sure people in their 60s don’t want to postpone the retirement age.

But the fact is, we’re facing a national disaster, and we’re going to have to do some really terrible things. In fact, they probably underestimated how many terrible things, because they have some rosy scenarios in there.

But they took the serious things that have to be done, and they threw them on the table. And so I think they did a great service to the country. I think the second thing they have done is, they have smoked out who is willing to have this conversation and who isn’t.

You saw people on the right, like Grover Norquist, and people on the left, like some of the public sector unions, say: Hell, no. We are not talking about this. This is dead on arrival.

But then you had a lot of people, both Democrats and Republicans, saying: We hate this stuff, but we have got a real problem. We have got to talk about it.

And so I thought they have smoked out who is really serious about this thing. And then the final quick thing I will say, all these things are very painful. The idea that, politically, with this country where it is right now, could pass any of this stuff, it’s fantasyland. The country has to change first.

JIM LEHRER: Fantasyland? Change the country first?

MARK SHIELDS: I hope it isn’t fantasyland.

I mean, this is not an eat your spinach plan. This is an eat your spinach, eat your broccoli, and finish your brussels sprouts plan. And if the test for political courage is the ability to simultaneously alienate both the political left and the political right, then Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles have passed that test with flying colors. The…

JIM LEHRER: Well, we had it on our program last night. I mean, they were…

MARK SHIELDS: Exactly. No, they — they — and they had to do it, because the commission is not going to agree on anything. And they have forced the debate. David is absolutely right. By doing this, they have preempted the debate and forced others to address this.

There are two things about it I think that are crucial, Jim. First of all, people have been hiding about, saying we’re going to settle — balance this budget by hitting them, the, I don’t know, rich people, taxes, or whatever, closing loopholes. Or we’re going to hit by them taking away the benefits from these freeloaders.

He has basically said, it’s us, OK? And they have…

JIM LEHRER: This isn’t them. It’s us.

MARK SHIELDS: That’s right. And they have laid out the plan. And if you want to argue with parts of it, OK, fine. But you better come up with where you are going to come — get the money. And I think that’s crucial. The other thing they have done is, they have asked for shared sacrifice.

And, since Ronald Reagan beat Jimmy Carter — Jimmy Carter lost in 1980 running — accused of running on a platform of cold showers and root canal work. Reagan came along and said, I’m going to double the defense budget, cut your taxes by a third, and balance the budget.

Boy, that sounded great. That was a real formula for success. Of course he didn’t do it. But, ever since then, every president, with the minor exceptions of George Herbert Walker Bush in his term and Bill Clinton in his first term, have basically gone on ouchless, painless prosperity.

There has been no shared sacrifice this century at all. And what they are saying is, are you up to it? Are you in the American tradition? Are you willing to do it?

DAVID BROOKS: I think that’s the test.

JIM LEHRER: That’s it, huh?

DAVID BROOKS: I mean, you got Marines and soldiers in Afghanistan sacrificing for their country. And you’re not willing to give up your mortgage interest deduction or see a little raise in your capital gains tax?

I mean, that is the country — that’s the question the country really has to ask. And I would say it’s up — it’s not — the change isn’t going to happen in Washington. There has to be a change in the country of voters saying, yes, I hate this, but I’m willing to do it, or else the politicians will go nowhere near it.

And so there has to be some surge in the country first of people saying, yes, we’re serious about this.

JIM LEHRER: But how can there be a surge without an election? It is not going to happen then before 2012.

DAVID BROOKS: No. Well, social movements arise. We had the Obama movement arose. The Tea Party movement arose. People got organized. Institutions formed.

JIM LEHRER: So, it could happen?

DAVID BROOKS: And they changed the political dynamic. We would have to have a significant change in the political dynamic before politicians of either party will touch this.

JIM LEHRER: One quick thing before we go. You mentioned George Herbert Walker Bush. What did you think of George W. Bush’s memoir?

MARK SHIELDS: Fascinating.

JIM LEHRER: We have got a minute left.

MARK SHIELDS: Fascinating, in the sense that it is a Rorschach test. If you liked George W. Bush and the way he operated, you will like this book. If you didn’t like the decisions he made, then you won’t like this book.

And what it showed me, more than anything else, was his generosity and magnanimity toward Barack Obama and how that deprived Democrats of any kind of an enemy in the campaign of 2010. He just was so discreet, so circumspect, and so…

JIM LEHRER: Just kept so quiet, yes.

MARK SHIELDS: So — kept so quiet — and the tension between him and Dick Cheney, which is real.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. Yes. Covering him, he always projected certainty and no doubt. But, privately, you knew he had a lot of uncertainty and a lot of doubt. And the book actually opens up about that. So I’m glad that people can see that part of Bush, which I found more attractive sometimes than the Bush who was out there in the open.

JIM LEHRER: OK. David, Mark, thank you both.

MARK SHIELDS: Thank you.

DAVID BROOKS: Thank you.