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Shields and Brooks on Realities of Spending Cuts, Obama’s Need for a ‘Win’

November 19, 2010 at 6:11 PM EDT
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Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks analyze the week's top headlines including the realities of dealing with the federal deficit and earmarks, debate over passing the New START treaty and how Obama shouldn't come back empty-handed from the NATO Summit.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: And to the analysis of Shields and Brooks. That’s syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks. Welcome, gentlemen.

MARK SHIELDS: Thank you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Good to have you back this Friday.

So, David, Congress back in session this week. We have met these 100 or so new members of the House and the Senate. Any particular impressions of them so far?

DAVID BROOKS: A lot of seminars for them. They’re like little ducks, from one seminar to another. And I guess they learn a lot, learn the rules, get to see the buildings, where the restrooms are.

One of the things that struck me is that Mitch McConnell in the Senate could have said, we want you Democrats to take all the tough stuff and get it over with, so we don’t have to deal with it in January. But, on the contrary, the Republicans are saying, no, we’re going to stop some of the budget things and we want to deal with it in January.

And that’s significant to me, because one of the questions is, does the Republican leadership think they’re going to have a lot of problems with the Tea Party people who are coming in. And if they want to take on all these tough jobs, like passing a budget and what is called the doc fix, that suggests they think they aren’t going have big problems with the Tea Party types, that they will have some unity as a party.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, how do you read this? And speaking of earmarks, this is something that we heard that — the Republican leader in the Senate, Mitch McConnell, change his mind on.

MARK SHIELDS: No question. I guess I disagree with David a little bit on — I agree totally with weekend orientation — a week of orientation, like they’re freshmen. I mean, this is the campus. And particularly poignant were the ethics seminars, which they — to which they were subjected, as Charlie Rangel, the 80-year-old chairman, past, of the Ways and Means Committee, is being censured by the Senate, so that was — censured by the House. That was rather poignant.

But, in the Senate, I am not as — I don’t think Mitch McConnell is quite as chesty about his prospects as David has them. He, in fact…

JUDY WOODRUFF: Chesty, is that…

MARK SHIELDS: Chesty, full of himself…

JUDY WOODRUFF: OK.

MARK SHIELDS: … you know, sort of brimming with confidence.

He caved from a long-held position. He had been one of the strongest, most principled defenders of earmarks, pointing out that the Constitution, in fact, endows and imbues the Congress solely with the power of the purse.

And in come the Tea Party people, and they say, we believe in the Constitution, and we don’t want earmarks. We want the executive to make all the decisions on how this money should be spent.

And so Mitch McConnell, who had been telling us how good earmarks were and how they were a prerogative of the elected officeholders, caved. And I think he said that two and two is four for many years, and now said two and two was five. And that was the new people coming in.

And I think there’s the sense of movement of the Tea Party itself and its support. I mean, every Republican basically who is up in 2012, virtually every Republican, is looking over his and her shoulder at a primary challenge.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, did you see that as a direct — as a cause and effect?

DAVID BROOKS: I think so. There was among the Republican chairmen and leadership, on this particular issue, there clearly was a sense, if we don’t have earmarks, we are just handing over all the power to the people in the executive branch. And, as members of Congress, we want to keep that power.

But earmarks have become a symbol…

MARK SHIELDS: That’s right.

DAVID BROOKS: … for Republican malfeasance, for — well, both parties, but especially Republican malfeasance…

MARK SHIELDS: Yes, both parties.

DAVID BROOKS: … by the Republicans coming in. So, it was a symbolic gesture I think he had to make.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes.

DAVID BROOKS: The other thing, though — and so this was a minor budget control.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And it is a small part of the deficit.

DAVID BROOKS: Right, and I spent the week talking to members. You know, we have had all these deficit commissions which have come out.

And so I said, is there any reality to this in Congress? And so I have spoken to a whole bunch of members in the last week. And the short answer is, no, there is no political reality. The Republicans really will not accept any deal that includes…

JUDY WOODRUFF: In any of these reports?

DAVID BROOKS: No — that includes any tax increases. The Democrats really are not that serious about cutting the entitlements. Nobody wants to revisit health care.

And so the basic — my basic conclusion so far is we have got a lot of nice reports, and a lot of them are great, but they are not going anywhere.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And speaking of all this, Mark, there was a poll that came out, I guess an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, that showed, for all the public message and these midterm elections that they want government spending to be cut, when you raise, specifically, Medicare, Social Security and doing something with taxes, they say, no, no, we don’t like that.

MARK SHIELDS: It’s the old line about everybody wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die.

I mean, that’s what — everyone is for general economizing, Judy, but for specific expenditures. And that’s why I don’t — I think David’s reporting is quite accurate on the subject, but it’s going to require a president taking this and making it the central issue of his administration, whether it is this president, the next president, because it — that is the only way, you make it visible, that all — everybody is in.

Everybody is in for a nickel and for a dollar, and it’s going to cost you and it’s going to cost us, but it is going to be better for everybody else. And I think the argument I would make if I were urging Barack Obama to take up this cause is, look, Social Security and Medicare are going to be cut. Who do you want making those cuts?

Do you want Republicans, who have consistently opposed these programs, or do you want somebody and an administration that believes in them and that believes that the people and Social Security and Medicare have to be protected?

And I think that’s the case for Democrats.

DAVID BROOKS: I think that’s the way to read the polls. And the polls are against what you said, but that doesn’t mean people aren’t open to reason.

And I had a wisdom tooth taken out today. And you had asked me, do I support or oppose getting a wisdom tooth taken out?

(LAUGHTER)

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I oppose it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Philosophically.

DAVID BROOKS: Philosophically.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes.

DAVID BROOKS: But I did it, because I had to do it.

And so you could say, do you support Social Security being — retirement raised? No, I oppose it. But, if you explain to people — and people basically understand this — we have got to do it, that doesn’t mean they won’t do what they oppose, but it does take this kind of leadership.

And it also takes, not only the president. It takes business. It takes people in society supporting that. And so far, that business support from business leaders, civic leaders, it isn’t there. And the president can’t leap out without those people.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And — but speaking of the president leading, I mean, Mark, he invited Republican and Democratic leaders in Congress to come over to the White House for a meeting this week. And the Republicans said, no, not now.

So, does that say anything about how much cooperation he may or may not get?

MARK SHIELDS: It says that they weren’t thrilled with the invitation, the way it was issued, which I think was publicly. There was no call from the president to the leadership on the Republican side.

I think there is also lingering — Judy, I think there is lingering anger and just kind of fury on the Republicans’ part that he — he, the president, was invited to their retreat last year, walked in with the cameras, and stood up and discussed policy, and was dominant. It may have been the best political event of the year that President Obama had.

And it was at the expense of House Republicans. And I think there is still some lingering, simmering anger about that whole event, that they thought he had kind of one-upped him. But they are going to meet on the 30th of November. It was a petty move on the part of the Republicans, but maybe understandable.

DAVID BROOKS: And it is sort of the ways things — I agree it was lingering from that earlier event.

But there is beginning to be outreach. When you talk to some of the people, the Republicans who are now going to be the chairmen of the various committees, some of them have had White House contacts. I think Paul Ryan, who is going to be head of the Budget Committee, has.

But a lot of people have had no contact. A lot of the senior Republicans have no contact with the White House. And now they are beginning to have some contacts.

And they say, you know, when Clinton was in office, I knew who my relevant agency head was. And I don’t know these people in this administration.

And I have heard a lot of people say Clinton and the first President Bush were really good at congressional relationships, and the last two presidents have not been as good.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But it wasn’t just this meeting that they declined to attend, at least for now. You had Jon Kyl in the Senate saying just flat-out, we’re not going to be able to deal with this New START treaty with the Russians.

And we heard, of course, Margaret referring to that. The president is over in Portugal meeting with NATO.

MARK SHIELDS: That’s — in my judgment, that is outrageous. That really is indefensible, what Jon Kyl — but Jon Kyl is the Republican who is doing it.

I mean, John McCain is hiding behind Jon Kyl, who has always been a supporter of the START treaty in the past. And they have brought up — this is a treaty that is supported by Henry Kissinger, Jim Baker, Condi Rice, Bob Gates, George Shultz. I mean, it’s bipartisan.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Republicans.

MARK SHIELDS: Republicans across the board.

It has — quite frankly, it passed the committee 14-4. You know, it is in the interests of the United States. And they are just — I can only conclude this is about embarrassing the president. I really can.

DAVID BROOKS: I sort of agree with that. I don’t see the big deal. I don’t see the big deal about the treaty.

If you look at the reduction in warheads, it is a drop from like 1,750 to 1,550. It is not a huge thing. The substance of it is not huge. But the atmospherics around us help us deal with Russia. It helps us deal with our allies. So, it is not that important a thing.

Why make a big opposition to a thing that, frankly, isn’t that important, unless are you motivated in part by some sort of Cold War memories, or you just want to oppose the president? So, I think it’s unfortunate.

MARK SHIELDS: Remember the mantra of the greatest cold warrior of them all, Ronald Reagan, trust but verify.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Yes.

MARK SHIELDS: That is what this treaty does. It allows inspection, which we haven’t been able to do for the last year.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, the other — the other piece of opposition, I guess — and this is directed at the Federal Reserve — and this is what Jeff was just talking to Greg Ip of The Wall Street Journal about — is criticizing Ben Bernanke and this so-called quantitative easing, as Bernanke says, to try to do something that he is worried about, deflation. He’s worried about long-term unemployment.

But now Republicans are criticizing him and saying the Federal Reserve shouldn’t be doing this.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. This, I think, was substantive. And I don’t — I’m not well-informed enough to know the merits of it.

But the Republicans are being more or less consistent here. The Republicans have generally been…

JUDY WOODRUFF: Your mike has fallen off, and we’re going to get you to fix it, so we can hear what you’re saying.

(LAUGHTER)

MARK SHIELDS: I will pick up. What David intended to say was…

(LAUGHTER)

DAVID BROOKS: Well, Republicans have long said that — I have lost it because of my mike — that they were suspicious of using monetary — this sort of easing, and possibly competitive devaluation, as a way to gin up economic growth.

They think you should focus on the fundamentals. They think, if you use this sort of monetary policy, you are creating long-term distortions. So, I think they are being consistent. Whether they are right or not, I don’t know, but this is a substantive disagreement.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes, I don’t pretend to be — knowledge of this esoteric material.

I will say this, that Chairman Bernanke, who was obviously appointed by President Bush and has a conservative reputation, sees he has a dual mandate. I think the Republicans say, you have one mandate, and that is to control inflation. His is to control inflation, but also to boost employment.

And I think that’s — that’s what he is about. And he has been criticized not simply by Mike Pence and the Republican leadership, but by Germany, Brazil, and China. So, it is politics making, I don’t know, strange bedfellows, or whatever, but it is an interesting ship.

(LAUGHTER)

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, just finally, these other countries you are talking about, back on President Obama, does it matter whether he comes back from these foreign trips with something or not at this point, coming off the election?

MARK SHIELDS: I think he needs a win. You know, it’s just something that he comes back — the last trip was seen as a disappointment. And I think — I mean, certainly not connecting with the people of India, but with South Korea.

And I think, you know, he needs a sense that he is still a dominant and important figure.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Relevant, as one previous president said.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes, relevant.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. No, the atmospherics, not in the country — people want to care about the economy — but, within Washington, the atmospherics around a winner or non-winner, as Margaret was saying earlier in the program, to have that aura around you, that does affect things within Washington, not more broadly, though.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, gentlemen, you are always relevant. And…

MARK SHIELDS: And our atmospherics are great.

(LAUGHTER)

JUDY WOODRUFF: … we don’t want you taking any trips anywhere. Just be here each Friday night.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes.

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

MARK SHIELDS: Thank you.