TOPICS > Politics

Shields, Brooks on Tax-Cut Deal, ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’

December 10, 2010 at 6:33 PM EDT
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Columnists Mark Shields and David Brooks discuss the week's top political stories with Jim Lehrer, including President Obama's tax-cut deal with the GOP and the likelihood of the Senate approving the New START treaty and a repeal of the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy.

JIM LEHRER: And to Shields and Brooks, syndicated columnist Mark Shields, New York Times columnist David Brooks. And then, Mark, what is going to happen after Monday?

MARK SHIELDS: Monday, there will be a cloture vote at 3:00. And the betting is right now that the votes are there to invoke cloture, and that the Senate will move to vote up or down on the bill in the next day or two.

JIM LEHRER: And then the same — and then in the House?

DAVID BROOKS: I think eventually. Obviously, there is a lot of rumbling in the House. The Democrats had sort of an informal vote, a voice vote, within their caucus yesterday against the thing. But, listen, if they do nothing, then the taxes will go up. Everybody will be really angry at President Obama. And then a Republican House will come in and they will cut the taxes on their own terms. So, there is pretty much no choice here. This thing will go through.

JIM LEHRER: No choice here?

MARK SHIELDS: I think there is a choice. I think there — the — I think David’s right that Speaker Pelosi doesn’t want it to go down. But she does want it changed. And there really — this is real in the House. This is not a pro forma…

JIM LEHRER: You mean the protests the Democrats…

MARK SHIELDS: The protest is — is authentic. It is based on both the means by which it was done, but, more importantly, the substance of it. I just was reading, between 1971 and 2001, median income of the average worker showed historically no gain. During that same 30 years, the income of the top 100th of 1 percent went up by almost 500 percent. That is why the Bush tax cuts are immoral. Those are words written in this autobiography by Barack Obama.

That is what he made the centerpiece of his campaign, domestically, in 2008. And so there is a sense of that, of betrayal on what is a defining issue to his presidency. And he just kind of walked away with it and with the stain and contempt toward Democrats who didn’t embrace it and who had been his most steadfast supporters for the last two years, and many of whom paid for their loyalty to the president with tough, difficult votes that put their careers at risk.

JIM LEHRER: And, yet, David Brooks wrote in the — this morning’s New York Times that this was a terrific week for the president and the Democrats.

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I think it was.

JIM LEHRER: Mr. Brooks?

DAVID BROOKS: First, I sort of understand the House Democrats on the method. The White House didn’t do a good job of rewarding the loyalty that has been flowing up. They didn’t do a good job talking and communicating. Nonetheless, I think the president got a remarkably good deal. Look at the context he was in. As I mentioned, there is about to be a Republican House. The tax cuts are going to go away. And you had a series of Democratic senators from red states who wanted all the tax cuts preserved. And so this was an extraordinarily weak hand they were dealt. And yet the White House got — managed to get out of the negotiations a whole lot of things the Democrats want, on the earned income tax credit, on college scholarships, on the payroll tax. They got a lot of stuff. They did remarkably well for their side.

So, there are a lot of Republicans who are unhappy, because this is sort of a balanced package. And, as for President Obama, he says it is immoral. He disagrees with the policy. That much is clear. But guess what? This is Washington. This is real life. You have got to do negotiations.

And given the context he had, and the context he faced, and the ruinous cost, if everybody’s taxes went up in the middle of a recession, he had to make a deal. And he made a deal. He is probably not happy with the deal. The Republicans are not totally happy with the deal. But it is a deal. That is what a deal is.

And we’re not used to that happening in Washington too much recently, but it happened. And so, on balance, I think it’s probably good for the economy for the next two years, and I think it’s good for Washington that we actually — somebody actually made compromise.

JIM LEHRER: Of course, former President Bill Clinton said a couple hours ago here in Washington, after meeting with President Obama — he had a news conference, and he said, there’s — I believe there is not a better deal out there than this one.

Is he speaking for himself?

MARK SHIELDS: I think he’s speaking — he is a very informed, insightful observer.

I would point out, Jim, two words that were spoken reverentially on this set in the last couple of weeks: Simpson-Bowles. We were talking about the debt.

JIM LEHRER: The deficit, the deficit.

MARK SHIELDS: The debt in the country and how important it was. And we were in a new era and we’re going to deal with this.

Nine hundred billion dollars of red ink just out there, and $120 billion of it goes to the top 2 percent, at a time of the greatest income inequality in this country since 1928. David says the president cut the deal. The president cut a deal after no fight.

He did have — not have a weak hand. He had 60 percent of the American people believed, according to a Bloomberg poll, asked specifically this week, during the fight itself as it was emerging, do you favor repeal of these taxes for the richest? Was there a fight made? That’s when you come to a compromise, is after a fight.

I will tell you what the problem that Barack Obama has right now in the political world. Republicans are secretly gleeful. I haven’t heard any Republicans who are condemning this, with the…

DAVID BROOKS: … talk radio.

MARK SHIELDS: Well, talk radio. I’m talking about those who are going to cast votes on it.

But the problem is, they don’t know where Barack Obama will fight. They don’t know what his backbone — and whether he does have a backbone. It’s a question that is always asked about liberals: How tough is he?

And he — at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, when the United States and the Soviet Union stood at the bridge of the war, Dean Rusk put it — he said, we were eyeball to eyeball with the other guy, and the other fellow blinked.

And with Barack Obama, you got the sense that he blinked the minute he walked in the room, and gave the Republicans what they wanted.

JIM LEHRER: But your point is — correct me if I’m wrong, David — you can state it yourself if you would like — that this wasn’t the time to fight. This was the time when the country wanted no fighting anymore. Let’s get this thing done and…

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I think he did fight.

JIM LEHRER: You think he did fight?

DAVID BROOKS: I mean, I thought that he made the case internally. And, listen, we just had an election. The Republicans won the election, so he had a weak hand.

And what was he going to do, let the tax cuts expire? Believe me, the Republicans would have been tempted, because it would have made Obama and the Democrats look terrible. And Krauthammer’s point is actually correct, that this makes Obama’s reelection quite likely.

And so there is a political calculation: Hey, let’s let the economy stall, and he will be defeated, and we will take over.

And so, you know, I think a fight wouldn’t have made any difference, because the Republican could have walked too. But let me address Mark’s point on the deficit, which I think is a serious point. Everybody is a fiscal hawk when they are opposing policies they don’t like.

And, yet, how do you think about this? And I want to cut the deficit as much as any, and, yet, I think this is a good deal. And I guess my explanation, or rationalization if you don’t like it, is that we’re only going to cut the deficit if the economy is in decent shape.

We’re not going to raise — we’re not going to cut some of the spending. We’re not going to raise taxes the way we need to do until the economy is rolling along. And if Ben Bernanke is worried about the economy, and if we come up here every fourth Friday, and the job numbers every month are terrible, we’re just not going to cut entitlements.

So, we have got to do something over the short term to make the economy healthier. And then we can think about cutting the deficit. But until we do that — so, I would say this is a step. This will stimulate the economy a little maybe over the next year. Then we can get serious about the larger issues.

JIM LEHRER: What about — talk a little about that, Mark. Whatever you think about the plan, whatever, Obama this and the Democrats that, what about the general point that’s being made by both sides now that this could, in fact, lead to helping the economy recovery, and that, whatever you think about it, it may end up being a good thing?

MARK SHIELDS: So, keeping tax rates for the very wealthiest…

JIM LEHRER: I take it you don’t agree?

MARK SHIELDS: … where they have been since 2001 — all right? The First eight years of these tax cuts — that is why they were there — the country lost 600,000 jobs in the private sector. This is before the collapse.

This is before — this is before the financial crisis. I mean, it’s a myth. This is supply-side, trickle-down economics. If you really want to stimulate the economy, you don’t start by giving 120 billion to the wealthiest people, who sit on it.

And, secondly, you don’t pass an estate tax that gives the lowest rate, Jim, since 1931. After 11 years of Republicans in the White House and in the Congress, they finally got it down to the point where it’s going to be now, under a Democratic president, where, as a consequence of this, who is going to benefit? We’re going to have 39,000 families get a total windfall of $27 billion next year.

Now, is that — that is stimulus?

JIM LEHRER: I think that is a no, too.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, I’m with Mark on the estate tax. That has no stimulative effect.

But, listen, we have got a series of big businesses and small businesses, especially the small businesses, who think the government is at war with them. They are sitting on hoards of cash. They are completely insecure, because they have no certainty about anything. They are in a very risk-averse mood.

What will happen to that psychology if their taxes go up in the middle of this economic situation? It’s just not going to be good. And so I think, after two years, we should not extend anymore. I think then they should all go up. But right now, in this fragile mood, when he talked to hundreds of businesspeople, and they’re just — they feel beaten-up, and they are — you — when you talk to them, they describe the barriers they put before every investment decision.

And there’s a whole series of barriers. We have got to start eliminating those barriers, so they can invest and jobs can be created. Raising taxes on those people would not be good for the economy.

JIM LEHRER: This was a point that Bill Clinton made today.

But I’m going to — we have just got a couple minutes left, but don’t ask, don’t tell, it didn’t — the Republican filibuster killed it, for now. Is it dead forever?

DAVID BROOKS: I don’t — well, not forever.


DAVID BROOKS: But, in the near term, I think, according to Susan Collins and Joe Lieberman, the 60 votes are there. So, maybe if they can get this as a stand-alone measure, take it away from the defense authorization, all the other stuff, maybe those 60 votes will still be there. I would say it has a glimmer of life.

JIM LEHRER: Glimmer of life?

MARK SHIELDS: Glimmer of life.

But outside of the Senate, there’s one person who stands distinguished by this whole debate. And that is Bob Gates, the secretary of defense, who laid it right to the Congress and said, what you are doing, by not coming up with a legislative solution, is risking a judicial mandate and edict. And that is going to put the services in a terrible position, with no time to prepare for the adjustments required.

And he is absolutely right. And, if they ignore him, they do it at their risk and at the risk of our military.

JIM LEHRER: How do you read the Republican politics on this? They came within three votes, but they didn’t get the 60. But the majority was there.


I assume, for most Republicans, it’s a — you don’t want to support this. Your people, seniors, especially — again, this is a generational thing — seniors, in the short term, are against it. And so it’s probably a safe bet for a Republican to vote against this thing, for now. I wouldn’t say the same thing in 10 years from now. But, for now, it is.

JIM LEHRER: But the change in the leadership of the House means this probably will not go with a new Congress?

MARK SHIELDS: That’s right. No, that’s exactly right. David’s right.

JIM LEHRER: And it will be awhile. And the — do you agree, the courts are going to have to finally resolve this?

DAVID BROOKS: The courts, and, if not that, the generations.


What about START? Is the Senate going to get its votes?

MARK SHIELDS: We will find out how tough a negotiator the president is.

This was Jon Kyl’s estate tax. Jon Kyl is the person who wrote this estate tax.

JIM LEHRER: The Republican senator from Arizona.

MARK SHIELDS: So, we will find out on that. I mean, if the estate tax giveaway is in there, windfall, and START doesn’t come, then, boy, that is a hell of a bargain, what he’s driven with him.

JIM LEHRER: Are you suggesting that is how it works?

MARK SHIELDS: I’m suggesting that this came out of nowhere. This wasn’t even on the wish list, the estate tax.

JIM LEHRER: The estate tax, right.


DAVID BROOKS: Yes. And START was clearly held up as part of the tax negotiation. And, already, there are signs of crackage, if you want to use that word, that we will probably get a START treaty.

JIM LEHRER: Yes, I noticed that Senator John McCain said he thought it might happen.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, suddenly, it seems a little clearer all of a sudden.


DAVID BROOKS: It is politics. That is how it is supposed to work.

JIM LEHRER: It is supposed to work this way, and it has.


JIM LEHRER: And thank you both very much.

MARK SHIELDS: Thank you.