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Shields and Brooks: After Debt Talks ‘Meltdown,’ What’s the Path Forward?

July 22, 2011 at 12:00 AM EST
Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks dissect the week's developments in the debt-ceiling debate, including the latest breakdown in talks between the White House and congressional Republicans, plus the "Gang of Six" plan and a possible compromise by Sens. Mitch McConnell and Harry Reid.
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JIM LEHRER: And to the analysis of Shields and Brooks, syndicated columnist Mark Shields, New York Times columnist David Brooks.

Mark, tell us what’s going on.

MARK SHIELDS: Jim, what you have just seen is the rupture of the summit. This had been a summit deal involving the speaker of the House, a Republican, and the Democratic president of the United States.

Nobody else had been really party — party to it, other than Eric Cantor, the Republican House leader. But the Democratic leadership, the House and the Senate were not party to it, and nor were the Republicans in the Senate.

So, what it came down to, we’re now at a he said/he said breakup. And the time is now short. I mean, the grand deal appears to be in shambles. And now the urgency is to raise the debt-ceiling and get it done.

JIM LEHRER: What do you think happened?

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DAVID BROOKS: Yes, shambles, a complete meltdown, apparently. I have never seen a presidential press conference with a president so angry in public.

And I — you know, I sort of think he’s maybe mostly right on the substance. He laid out — apparently in the next few hours, they are going to be laying out the details of what the White House offer was. And there was a lot of revenue cuts. There was some — or spending cuts — there was some entitlement cuts. There was some revenue increases.

So if those are real, then I think it was a pretty good deal. But the president’s tone of being the only adult in Washington, everyone else is a child, that he’s going to summon people to the White House as if they are kindergartners, well, even if you agree with them on the substance, it’s kind of hard to go along with someone who is insulting you all the time.

And so I think the president took a big risk. Maybe we will see his tone, as he is giving it to them, he’s angry, he’s treating them like children, but a lot of people will take a look at it and say, a little — there’s some arrogance and self-superiority there.

JIM LEHRER: Well, it’s 6:36 as we’re speaking, Eastern time, and the president’s still speaking at — in the White House Briefing Room, still raising hell with the Republicans.

DAVID BROOKS: Right.

JIM LEHRER: We don’t know — but he says, Mark, that he’s going to — he has called the bipartisan congressional leadership to the White House tomorrow, Saturday, for a meeting.

But if Boehner says he’s not negotiating, what’s going on? That’s what I am trying to get what — we don’t know.

MARK SHIELDS: Well, John Boehner said he himself was going to now negotiate with the leaders of the Senate and to try and come up with something. That was in his statement.

So — but the president did say not to come for a meeting. He said be at the White House tomorrow morning at 11:00 and come up with a suggestion — a solution, that it’s up to you. Now, to the best of my knowledge, Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell and Nancy Pelosi have not been — Steny Hoyer — have not been a party to this.

And it’s — so, you know, I don’t know how they are supposed to come up with a solution between now and 11:00 tomorrow morning. But that was the president’s ultimatum.

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes.

MARK SHIELDS: And I do think, Jim, that it probably raises the ante and makes greater the likelihood that the Mitch McConnell-Harry Reid compromise has new legs and new life.

JIM LEHRER: For the record, the president just left the White House Briefing Room…

MARK SHIELDS: OK.

JIM LEHRER: … having — but the Gang of Six now, everybody was very optimistic about that. We had two of the members on last night. And they said, hey, we’re — that’s — we’re the only guys in play here. We’re the only people who have a plan on the table.

It looked like that was going to be — that was — there was going to be peace in our time. Do you know what happened with that?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I think it — we — the Gang of Six plan was vague enough, but it had an outline of what — essentially where they were going.

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

DAVID BROOKS: If the president’s right, then his — his offer was to the right of where the Gang of Six was. And if the House Republicans rejected that, then the Gang of Six would surely not be acceptable, because the gang of six included a lot more revenue than what the president says he’s offered.

Now, we’re not sure of what the president really offered because we don’t know the details. But he’s — if they rejected what Obama was offering, believe me, the Gang of Six wasn’t going to be acceptable for House Republicans.

JIM LEHRER: Boehner said in his written statement was that, “It’s all about taxes. The president is emphatic that taxes have to be raised. As a former small businessman, I know tax increases destroy jobs.”

And that’s what he hung it on. And that’s been the issue from the very beginning, has it not?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, it has certainly been the issue with Republicans.

JIM LEHRER: That’s what I meant.

MARK SHIELDS: That’s right.

And John Boehner, according to all reports and reporting, was more open to considering revenue being raised by closing down tax expenditures and tax loopholes.

JIM LEHRER: Not raising tax rates or anything, but raising revenue, yes.

MARK SHIELDS: Rates, that’s right. That’s right.

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes, that’s verboten for Republicans. You can’t raise the rate.

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes.

MARK SHIELDS: And for some, you can’t even raise revenues. But John — John Boehner was in active discussions with that.

So we will — we will now find out, you know, how it broke up, why this marriage can’t be saved, you know, what — you know, who walked out on whom.

DAVID BROOKS: If I could just…

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

DAVID BROOKS: … where we’re headed…

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

DAVID BROOKS: Because I don’t think — if the president says come here tomorrow and submit to me your plan, that’s not going to happen. They’re not going to be willing to be treated like that.

So, nothing is going to happen tomorrow. And so maybe we will get to the McConnell-Reid. I — a lot of House Republicans signed a letter saying, we will not support that.

JIM LEHRER: Explain what the McConnell-Reid idea is.

DAVID BROOKS: The McConnell-Reid is too complicated to explain and understand.

JIM LEHRER: OK.

DAVID BROOKS: But, essentially, it is a very complicated set of procedures which allow Republicans to raise the debt without ever actually voting for it, and it gives the Democrats a lot of uncomfortable votes.

JIM LEHRER: And the president essentially has the power to do it.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. It’s a — and it hands a lot of authority over to the White House. So, it’s a very cynical series of gestures which does nothing but kick the can down the road.

Then the second offer and the more likely solution to all this is some sort of minimal, just, OK, we will take what we can get. And there are sort of $500 million over 10 years of cuts sitting on the table. And that would be the default position which we may fall back to.

The problem with that is the rating agencies have said — or at least one of them has said, that’s not enough. If you don’t really cut $4 trillion, then we’re going to — we’re going to downgrade your debt and interest costs will then rise for a lot of us. And so that is the most likely political solution. It may be a disastrous financial solution.

JIM LEHRER: Is there — is there a stench of this kind of political gamesmanship here, rather than hard-held philosophy and ideological and policy differences?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I think, Jim, it’s been a mud fight right from the beginning. It’s been an unappealing, unappetizing spectacle.

The president had an edge over the Republicans in measures of public opinion as casting himself as the grownup and caring more about compromise and more willing to compromise. But neither side was really being elevated to Mount Rushmore status throughout this whole process.

It’s been — I think it’s hemorrhaging confidence in Washington, in the federal government, in our ability to act maturely and responsibly together. So I — I think it’s been a loss all the way around.

And now we’re down to the point of, you know, look, we’re staring right down the barrel of Aug. 2.

JIM LEHRER: Is it conceivable that they will not make a deal, or they will make it in such a way that the government of the United States of America will actually go into default?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, I had been going in thinking there was a 10 or 20 percent chance of that. Now I would move that up to 30 or so.

I still wouldn’t say it’s likely, but I think it’s entirely — entirely likely. The atmosphere now, which we saw today, is so poisonous. I think the Republicans have been way too rigid on substantive grounds. But if you’re going to have a negotiation, there has to be a set of demeanors. You have to get people to want to help you.

And if you insult them continually, well, it makes it hard even if you have the substance on your side. And I think the president did nobody any favors with his press conference. I would have — I wish they had said: You’re hot right now. Have a press conference tomorrow.

JIM LEHRER: What do you — would you go 30 percent as the possibility? Would you go with David on 30 percent possibility?

MARK SHIELDS: I still — I’m just — my native optimism just insists that these — in the final analysis, they’re not partisans, they’re grownups, they’re Americans, and they know how far how grave the consequences are.

JIM LEHRER: But then why are they acting the way they’re acting?

MARK SHIELDS: It’s — it — Jim, it’s a question that I don’t have the answer for.

JIM LEHRER: I know.

MARK SHIELDS: I mean, I will say this, that as long as you have the kind of negotiations we had between just the president, who is a Democrat, and the speaker, who is a Republican, nobody else on either side had a stake in these negotiations.

I mean, at a time of transparency, these were totally un-transparent. We don’t know what is going on. All we have is the testimony of the two individuals.

JIM LEHRER: “Everything is going to be OK, guys.” Yes.

MARK SHIELDS: And — and — but the old adage is, in the legislative process, for a president, if you want people to be with you on the landing, they had better be in on the takeoff.

And you talk to Democrat after Democrat, they were all in the dark, leadership, non-leadership. And there was really a resentment about what was going on.

DAVID BROOKS: And there was some — at least on the Senate side, there really was a desire to do something. You had the Gang of Six.

And one of them — there were 53 senators in the room when they were unveiling that. And one of them said: This is the best day I have had on the job in a year, because we are actually talking substance.

And were so happy to actually be behaving like legislators. And so there was that to be tapped into, but, somehow, that has all been sideswiped into…

JIM LEHRER: Is it possible — I’m just speculating here, and I’m going to let you all answer the question — that — that the real game now, the real goal now is if — there will be some deal, but who gets the most blame or gets the most credit, if any? I mean, is that what this is really about?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, well, that’s turned into what it has been like. It is certainly what we have seen today. Let’s say this is a very good day for Mitt Romney or whoever the Republican nominee is. It is a very good day to not be in office, because I think The American people, you have seen this epic shift in disgust toward Washington, even from very high levels.

Now it’s going to be even higher. And so now we’re just trying to get to a point where we can avoid a catastrophe and move on with our normal poisonous atmosphere.

MARK SHIELDS: One of the reasons I thought that they were spending so much time on the debt-ceiling, $14 trillion, was they knew that they couldn’t do anything about the 14 million who are unemployed, who are the real problem in the country and the real crisis and the human tragedy.

But they always could do something about the debt-ceiling. They could pass it in the final analysis. And now we are starting to wonder whether in fact they will. I think this is not a — the process has been confidence-sapping, and it…

JIM LEHRER: For everybody.

MARK SHIELDS: For everybody.

JIM LEHRER: In other words, there’s not going to be any winners.

MARK SHIELDS: No, I don’t think there’s any winners.

And I — but I do think it is a results-driven event. In other words, what does happen if all — if all interest rates do rise, if there — you know, if there really is…

JIM LEHRER: We do have a catastrophe that…

MARK SHIELDS: Then, you know, it’s going to be disastrous. Politically, I mean, there will nobody winners. There will be nothing but losers.

JIM LEHRER: So, nobody will be able to point. The Republicans can’t point at Obama, and Obama can’t point at the Republicans and say, you did it, guys.

MARK SHIELDS: Well, he — the president did move public opinion over the past month. I mean, he did use the bully pulpit. We have now reached a point where a plurality, in some cases the majority, acknowledge, the public, that we have to raise the debt-ceiling. That started off way down. He did move public opinion.

DAVID BROOKS: But it’s relative decline. The president’s ratings have gone down.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes.

DAVID BROOKS: The Republicans’ have gone down worse. So there’s relative levels of disapproval, but there’s no approval here.

JIM LEHRER: Yes. OK.

Well, thank you both very much for the insight.

DAVID BROOKS: Thank you.