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Shields, Brooks on Tax-Cut Compromise, Holbrooke, Earmark Wrangling

December 17, 2010 at 6:46 PM EDT
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Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks analyze the week's top political news, including whether the tax-cut compromise might be a sign of cooperation to come in Washington plus they reflect on the diplomatic life of Richard Holbrooke and the battle in Congress over earmarks.
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TRANSCRIPT

JIM LEHRER: And to the analysis of Shields and Brooks, syndicated columnist Mark Shields, New York Times columnist David Brooks.

JIM LEHRER: The tax cut law — or the tax cut deal is now the law of the land. And is all well in America as a result?

MARK SHIELDS: Jim, I think you can already feel harmony and tranquility is griping the continent.

(LAUGHTER)

MARK SHIELDS: A couple of things.

I mean, victory legislatively and all that — not the toughest vote in the world, Jim to stand up and say, I’m going to ask you one thing, Jim Lehrer. Could you cast a vote to cut everybody’s taxes?

Mr. President, only because it’s in the good interest of the country will I do it. I know it’s my patriotic duty.

I mean, we haven’t reached the point where a president has asked us to cut anybody’s spending or to raise anybody’s taxes. But, that said, I thought that the best analysis was made by Peter Welch, the Democratic congressman from Vermont, who said, too much debt, too few jobs.

And I think we all hope that it is going to generate economic activity. But I think there is an overlay of skepticism among many Democrats.

JIM LEHRER: David, President Obama, speaking of Democrats, is getting most of the credit for this having been passed. Does he deserve it?

DAVID BROOKS: He deserves some. I mean, it is an easy thing to spend, tax cuts. But you have got to crawl before you can walk. I mean, we haven’t seen a lot of signing ceremonies with Mitch McConnell standing there with President Obama. So…

JIM LEHRER: This, in fact, may be the first.

DAVID BROOKS: That is a good point. I hadn’t thought of it. Yes, it could be.

JIM LEHRER: Yes, yes, yes, in the two years of the Obama administration.

MARK SHIELDS: Kentucky Derby week, I think.

DAVID BROOKS: Kentucky Derby week, yes, yes.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. So, no, I think, you know, think about what the tone would be like if this hadn’t — if they hadn’t been able to reach this deal, if we have a Republican Congress, very aggressive, very confrontational coming in.

I think this has changed the tone a little. I think it has at least opened the crack for future compromise. As to the substance, I don’t think it’s going to be a big stimulus. But I think, if we had raised taxes — it might have averted something.

Now, frankly, I’m — I think is a good deal. It is probably good for the economy. It will probably create a little boost. I have spent a lot of the week in New York with business and financial people. And maybe they are living in a bubble, but the mood there is way more confident about the economy — or optimistic — than the mood here.

JIM LEHRER: What do they say?

DAVID BROOKS: That things are opening up, that the Christmas season has started out pretty well. They are suddenly saying, we have had this period of contraction. Everything is tamped down. But now they have a feeling of release.

And, if that’s true — I hope it’s true — then this will look like a mistimed stimulus. But we can’t be confident of that. I think the projections are still slow growth. But maybe they are right. But I was really struck by the complete difference in tone between Washington conventional wisdom about the economy and New York conventional wisdom.

MARK SHIELDS: Could I just make one dampener on that?

JIM LEHRER: You may.

MARK SHIELDS: And that is that, Jim, the law, if it was allowed to go forward, would have resulted in taxes being raised, especially on the wealthiest. There was no way that taxes were going to be raised on middle-income people.

And, if two years away from an election, there wasn’t the will or the backbone to do that, can you imagine seriously, on election year 2012, when this expires, that, when the Republicans are in control of the House, that you are going to stand up and say, now’s the time to increase taxes?

I mean, that’s the fear, that these tax cuts have been made permanent.

DAVID BROOKS: Right.

MARK SHIELDS: And what we’re talking about is, in the short space of five years, that the interest on the national debt will be — the interest will be larger than the defense budget is today. I mean, that is a — that is such a sobering and really scary prospect. And I think that’s part of the…

DAVID BROOKS: That’s why — I mean, my hope is that it will all be subsumed in a larger, a much larger, debate, a big tax reform debate, a big spending debate.

And to have that debate, you have to build up some areas of trust. And I think, as the administration is looking forward, especially to the State of the Union, they are thinking, we are going to have fights about repeal of health care, but how can we build a fence? How can we build a fence against some issues where we think we can do — and I think the administration is pretty far advanced.

I’m thinking about corporate rate reform, maybe some individual. I think the president would like to do some Social Security reform. So, they are trying to think of areas where they can work together and sort of build on at least the spirit of what has been done here.

JIM LEHRER: And then fight about everything else.

DAVID BROOKS: Of course, but that is politics. That’s normal.

JIM LEHRER: Sure. Sure. Sure.

Speaking of fighting, the earmarks problem — of course, it’s in this new spending bill, and people were saying it was $8 billion out of a — what, is it a $1.2 trillion spending bill.

DAVID BROOKS: Right. Yes.

JIM LEHRER: Is this something to get worried about?

DAVID BROOKS: No, not particularly.

Earmarks have become the symbol of Washington insider dealing and corruption. And I understand why that is. I think, if you started when the Republicans took the majority, there were like 2,000 earmarks a year in the big budgets. And then that ramped up in those years to 14,000. And that was probably a problem.

But a lot of that is just the grease you need to get things done. And a lot of very good programs are funded by earmarks. And if you are looking at the total budget situation, it’s trivial. What matters is Medicare. Nobody wants to talk about Medicare, so they get tough on earmarks.

And so what’s happened is a complete change in standards. What was acceptable three years ago when it comes to earmarks is now completely unacceptable. But we should remember it’s symbolic. If you want to be serious about deficits, you have got to be serious about entitlements and taxes, the big things.

MARK SHIELDS: Part of it is the most rank of all political character defects. That is hypocrisy. It is a little bit like the chairman of the Citizens for Decent Literature just getting caught coming out of a pornographic movie theater.

You had, in rather a magic moment in the Senate press gallery, Senator John Thune of South Dakota, a potential presidential candidate, Senator John Cornyn of Texas, also mentioned as a presidential candidate, standing up there, talking about this terrible bill, this omnibus bill that the Democrats have came up with, $1.2 trillion, to fund the government, and being asked about the earmarks they have put in it, 25 in Thune’s case, 46 in Cornyn’s case, specific earmarks.

And they — Thune — Senator Thune said, he was for projects, but he was against the bill. So, the Republicans have made earmarks a big issue. I happen to come down on the side of Bob Bennett, the retiring senator from Utah, who pointed out, look, if you give up all earmarks, the Congress does, you’re transferring enormous power to any president, the administration.

They’re going to make all the spending decisions. And, yes, so, Congress — I mean, people talk about constitutional powers and checks and balances. They are just giving enormous — I mean, the idea of making them transparent and accountable and not for profit, I think, is legitimate, that people have to stand up and say, yes, I put that in there, and this why I did it.

But I think it really is in excess.

JIM LEHRER: The Afghanistan-Pakistan review, what did you read in that you — that stuns you or surprised you or did anything to you?

(LAUGHTER)

DAVID BROOKS: I wouldn’t say it surprised me. I mean, there has been a lot of good reporting outing of that area. And we know they have made, as I guess everyone uses the word, fragile progress on the military front.

And some of the military people are pretty confident they are making real progress. But then, obviously, the two problems are the sanctuary problems that we heard about earlier in the program in Pakistan, and then the Afghan government not being able to fill in and actually provide governance.

I guess my view is that we won’t really know until the spring or summer whether they are filling the military success with some political success. But I would observe in the tone of the president much less emphasis on the summer withdrawal and much more emphasis on 2014, which is sort of the NATO agreement.

And so I think our — regardless of what is happening right now, at the moment, our time frame has gone much long term, and we will be there significantly.

JIM LEHRER: Do you see it the same way, Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: I think that is the way the administration sees it.

Popular support, Jim, is eroding.

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

MARK SHIELDS: It’s now at a high of 60 percent do not think the sacrifice, costs, the benefits are worth it. And now it dropped another eight points to 34 — only 34 percent think it is.

And if you graph that out, you can see support for it going south. The president finds himself politically, despite the arguments on either side of the merits of the case or whatever — and the cleavage seems to be between the intelligence people, who are a lot less optimistic than are the military people.

But the president finds himself, like he did on the tax bill, seeking Republicans to support his position. And I think you will see a building at least dissent within the Democratic Party on this issue.

JIM LEHRER: Anti-war? There will be some anti-war Democrats?

MARK SHIELDS: If there is going to be a challenge to President Obama in 2012 — and I wouldn’t bet that there would be — it will come on this issue. It will come — it will come based upon opposition to the war.

And it would require the war going further south and more American casualties and a sense of chaos and disaster. But, I mean, that is where it comes from. It won’t come on a domestic issue, I do not believe.

JIM LEHRER: What do you make of the Pakistani haven issue that we discussed — that Margaret discussed on the program earlier? And we talked about it last night as well. It was in the review. Does that seem impossible to resolve, or is it as important as they say it is, or do you have a view?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, yes, I think, when one talks to the generals here, they say you can’t win a war when they can just retreat to sanctuaries across the border, and that border is uncontrollable.

And yet I don’t think anybody has an answer to that. I was really struck by, not only what our guests said, but what Jack Keane said the other night, where…

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

DAVID BROOKS: And that is the way the Pakistani government is. And we have been dealing with this problem for a long time, and nobody has been able to solve it, because they have these interests.

JIM LEHRER: Speaking of the problem for some time, Richard Holbrooke, the diplomat extraordinaire, died this week. What are your thoughts about that man?

MARK SHIELDS: Outsized, I mean, no question about it. I mean, he made us feel important, because he was a total consumer of all press… anything that was said or written about any subject he was interested in, let alone himself.

But there are two things about Richard Holbrooke that stand out to me. One, Jim, this is a city where a lot of people come for a couple of years from their profession out of a sense of civic duty or to burnish their professional credentials, work in an administration for two years, go back to what their professional pursuits are.

Richard Holbrooke’s pursuit, his passion was public service. He made a lot of money in the out — in his wilderness years, when Ronald Reagan and the Bushes were in power. But he couldn’t wait to get back and get back in the middle of it.

And everyone talks about the Dayton accords. And they were a signal achievement and this other thing. The thing he did as deputy ambassador to the U.N. was to persuade, through doggedness, determination and skill, Jesse Helms, the conservative chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee from North Carolina, to come up with the back dues that the United States owed to the United Nations, which was crucial…

JIM LEHRER: Millions and millions of dollars.

MARK SHIELDS: Millions of dollars.

And Richard Holbrooke did that. And, I mean, it was just — it was — he will be missed. There’s an empty place.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. I actually recall, a couple weeks ago, when — the last time he was on the program, I was describing a trip I was hoping to take to Afghanistan. He said, no, don’t do it that way. And then he went on for 20 minutes to tell me how to do my job. And it was excellent advice, by the way.

I remember, another time, we were sitting next to each other at a — in the audience at a panel discussion, and he started whispering about something about Vietnam. And he couldn’t stop. He just kept going and talking. He was so caught up.

And that is what Mark described. I think there was no distinction between his personal ambition and his public service, that his self was so fused with service, with government service, that that is when he came alive. And those moments when he was most alive, during Vietnam, during the Balkans thing, and now during Afghanistan, that is when he was fulfilled.

And, in a sense, somebody made the point, he literally died for his country, because he was — he knew he had a heart problem.

MARK SHIELDS: And he was pushing himself.

DAVID BROOKS: And he was pushing himself.

JIM LEHRER: You bet. Amen to you both. Thank you.

MARK SHIELDS: Thank you.