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Shields and Brooks on GOP’s Zeitgeist, Whether Obama Gets Credit for Libya

August 26, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks weigh in on the week's top political news, including Texas Gov. Rick Perry's leapfrog over Mitt Romney in the national polls and whether President Obama deserves -- or is getting -- credit for helping topple Moammar Gadhafi's regime.
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JIM LEHRER: And to the analysis of Shields and Brooks, syndicated columnist Mark Shields, New York Times columnist David Brooks.

Good to have both of you back.

MARK SHIELDS: Thank you, Jim.

JIM LEHRER: David, does President Obama deserve any praise or credit for what happened in Libya?

DAVID BROOKS: I think he does, and a lot more than he’s getting, actually.

You have to remember, when the — Gadhafi was marching on the rebels and threatening to massacre them, a lot of people in this country wanted to do nothing. A lot of people in Europe who were more upset about it just wanted to have sort of a no-fly zone.

And Obama has pushed them more aggressively than they wanted to go, so it wasn’t just a no-fly zone. Were — we actually ended up helping the rebels. We ended up helping the goal of regime change. And people have criticized whether it is was slow enough or fast enough, whether it was more aggressive or not.

But I think, more than anybody outside the country, I think Obama does deserve a lot of credit for showing that you can do an intervention reasonably well, achieve at least the first step of your objective, and do some large good for that country and potentially the region.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree with that, Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: I do. I agree that the president’s getting no credit for it. The irony, it seems to me…

JIM LEHRER: Yes. Why? Why is he not getting any credit?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I think because, when the economy is bad, the economy is the only issue. I really do. I think American opinion or interest in Libya has been episodic at best.

There was a lot at the beginning. But the people who most strenuously supported intervention now refuse to — mostly Republicans — refuse to give the president, the prime intervener, any credit. And most of the people who opposed the intervention were Democrats.

So they’re reluctant to — seem to be reluctant to crow, although they do acknowledge the president’s role. And it is a case of NATO working. The stalemate that was — loomed is over. A despot has been removed — 17,000 sorties were flown. You know, it’s a…

JIM LEHRER: Seventeen thousand sorties, that’s a lot of hardware.

MARK SHIELDS: Seventeen thousand. That’s a lot. It sure is. It sure is.

JIM LEHRER: Yes. Yes.

MARK SHIELDS: And the French and the English and the Americans.

So, I — you know, I don’t think he’s going to get a political bump out of it. But he can point to the fact that there is no Osama bin Laden and there is no Moammar Gadhafi. And it happened on his watch.

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

Why is it that the Republicans don’t give him credit?

(LAUGHTER)

JIM LEHRER: Oh, is that…

(LAUGHTER)

DAVID BROOKS: Do you have to ask that question?

JIM LEHRER: I can — tell me, David.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVID BROOKS: Well, you know, there’s the obvious political thing.

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

DAVID BROOKS: But, Republicans were not convinced about this either. There was a lot of opposition from Republicans as well.

And a lot of the Republicans who were more inclined to support doing something, intervening, like John McCain and Lindsey Graham, thought it was handled poorly.

JIM LEHRER: They wanted more. McCain and Graham wanted — they did want some boots on the ground, if necessary.

DAVID BROOKS: Right. They wanted to be more aggressive.

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

DAVID BROOKS: So they had some quibbles with the — how it was done.

JIM LEHRER: Yes. Right.

DAVID BROOKS: And so, as usual with Obama, he was stuck there in the middle, and without anybody.

But I do think, it wasn’t only him being right in calling for something pretty aggressive. It wasn’t only him being right in calling for regime change. I think Secretary Clinton has to get a lot of credit for what was done at the U.N., the way the NATO alliance was handled.

You know, I do — you know, I’m not convinced they have done everything right in regards to the Arab spring, but this is a clear moment when the U.S. played a very constructive role. And I — they deserve the credit. Nobody will give it to them now, but in a couple of years, people will acknowledge this was a good thing.

JIM LEHRER: Do you think — going back to something that David said earlier, Mark, do you think that this will be cited as a model for further — when something — the next kind of Libya thing comes up, well, we don’t have to do it with boots on the ground; we can do it with drones and we can do it with sorties?

MARK SHIELDS: I think it is, Jim. I think that this is — was a human rights intervention. This was to avoid…

JIM LEHRER: Human rights intervention?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, it was to avoid — it was to avoid massacre. That was the stated purpose.

And now what is the continuing responsibility, obligation of NATO and the United States as Libya works out? I mean, Libya is — fortunately, unlike in Iraq, it is not victimized by ethnic and religious rivalries that are so fierce and so lethal, but it has no tradition of established government. It has no tradition of established civic leadership.

JIM LEHRER: It has tribal traditions.

MARK SHIELDS: Tribal traditions. So it’s going to be a tough — this is — David said earlier it’s a — this is an important first step. And I think is, but now really comes the tough part.

JIM LEHRER: Speaking of the tough part, I guess that’s a — you guys have been gone a while. That’s a transition to Republican politics, David.

(LAUGHTER)

JIM LEHRER: Is — is Rick Perry the front-runner now for the Republican nomination?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, I think so.

JIM LEHRER: You think he is?

DAVID BROOKS: I think he is. He has only been in the race a couple of weeks, but the polls moved to a degree that is almost unprecedented. He has catapulted, and he’s catapulted among all wings of the party.

He is the guy they were waiting for, somebody who has a harder edge, somebody who has very strong conservative credentials, but who hasn’t been elected, run a major state. And I think Mitt Romney has to be thinking: I’m an outsider now. I’m behind. And I have to do something aggressive to try to get back.

If this was 2008, with the 2008 electorate, Romney would win, because there were a fair number of moderates who voted. About 40 percent of the people in the Republican primaries were moderates in 2008. But the 2012 electorate is not the same as 2008. It is much more conservative. It’s much angrier. Rick Perry sort of fits the mold. So I think he’s real. I think he has to be considered the front-runner.

JIM LEHRER: Real, has to be considered front-runner, Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: I do, Jim.

There are three essential groups that the Republican Party is divided into by their priorities by pollsters. And the first is sort of the — those who are concerned most about government power, want government reduced. The second are those who are concerned about business and the economy and jobs. And third are those who are most concerned about moral issues, whether it’s gay — same-sex marriage or gun rights or whatever.

The irony is that Rick Perry has an almost 2-1 lead on the first group, those who want to shrink government, but he also leads Romney in the second group, among those who…

JIM LEHRER: Business?

MARK SHIELDS: Business. And he leads in the much smaller group who are concerned…

JIM LEHRER: You don’t mean in the Gallup poll?

MARK SHIELDS: In the Gallup poll.

JIM LEHRER: Gallup poll.

MARK SHIELDS: And what is fascinating to me is when George W. Bush came into the race, following up on David’s point, in 2000, he came in as a Texas governor.

And the first thing he felt compelled to do was sort of round off the rough edges. He became an advocate, a champion of No Child Left Behind. He emphasized the strong Latino support he had had in that state. He billed himself as a compassionate conservative.

Rick Perry comes in, in 2012 — or the 2012 campaign, he accentuates the differences. I mean, he is for no federal role in education. He wants to repeal the 16th and 17th amendments to the Constitution. This is take-no-prisoners kind of conservatism.

And I think George W. Bush, the last president, could say to his two daughters, Jenna and Barbara, today, it’s not your grandfather’s Republican Party.

DAVID BROOKS: The Zeitgeist just completely shifted. Mark is right.

In 2000, it was a time of peace and prosperity. And we were arguing about what to do with the surpluses. And we’re not — that’s not the situation now. The Republican Party is a lot angrier, a lot more focused on government, a lot angrier at the people they see taking the country off its true course, people — they include people in Washington, people in New York and people in Boston, academics, financiers and politicians.

And so there’s a tone of anger. And Perry’s hard edges, his machismo plays into that.

JIM LEHRER: What does Romney do about this, Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, Romney — Romney, who has basically run a campaign that he has had all these sort of stars come in and then implode or — Donald Trump, certainly, or Michele Bachmann had a moment. And she’s still’s real candidate, don’t get me wrong, but she’s been eclipsed even more so by Perry’s arrival.

But he…

JIM LEHRER: Yes, because she was — she was right there, right there next to Romney. Now she’s third.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes, she has dropped back. He’s obviously cutting into her support.

JIM LEHRER: And Ron Paul is in there now, too, as close as she is, yes.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes. That’s exactly right.

JIM LEHRER: Yes. Yes.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes, Ron Paul is sui generis.

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

MARK SHIELDS: He has his own constituency. And it’s committed and it’s intense and it’s real.

But what Romney has to do, he can’t be the remainder man. He can’t be the guy who just waits for everybody else to fall. And I think there are those in his campaign who are saying, oh, Perry will implode because he says so many kind of bizarre things, or has said so many bizarre things, whether it is on global warming or whatever else.

And — but I think he’s going to engage him. There are four Republican debates between now and the — and Columbus Day in October. And I think will you see a far more aggressive Romney and the others as well. I mean, if they — otherwise, they run the risk of Perry opening up a lead, I think.

JIM LEHRER: Is there — is there a Romney that can do something about this, or is it Perry’s almost to lose now?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, I — I — we will see. It’s very tough to do.

But I more or less agree with Mark. I would give Perry a couple debates to implode. Give him a chance, a couple weeks. There are three debates next month.

JIM LEHRER: Sure.

DAVID BROOKS: If he doesn’t implode then, then you have to go after him. But you can’t try to pretend you are as conservative as he is.

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

DAVID BROOKS: If Mitt Romney does that, that’s disastrous. It’s just artificial. It won’t work.

You can’t really attack him for being conservative, the way Jim Huntsman has tried to do, because that is where the party is.

JIM LEHRER: Jon. Jon Huntsman.

DAVID BROOKS: Jon Huntsman. I’m sorry.

JIM LEHRER: Yes. It’s all right.

DAVID BROOKS: That is where the party is, so you don’t want to offend them. Somehow, you have to shift things.

And I think the most fruitful lines of attack are to say, this guy’s Tom DeLay, which is to say, he uses campaign money in funny ways to — not for principled reasons, but for political reasons, to feather his own nest and his buddies.

And I do think he’s vulnerable on that. And the second thing is, you have to remind people, what are we fighting about here? We’re fighting about America’s role in the world. It’s not Washington we have to fundamentally worry about. It’s competition from China and India and the new global economy.

He’s got more credibility talking about how to create an innovation economy than Perry does. He has less credibility in fighting Washington.

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

What about Huntsman? Why has Jon Huntsman not gotten — I mean, he was on the program last night. Jeff talked to him.

MARK SHIELDS: Jeffrey. Yes, saw it.

JIM LEHRER: And he drew some distinctions between him and the others.

MARK SHIELDS: He did.

JIM LEHRER: Why do those distinctions work against him, or do they work against him?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, Jon Huntsman may be — have a campaign strategy that’s based on the Republican Party that did exist.

I mean, historically, Jim, as I have covered the Republican Party, the fight has always been between one conservative candidate, candidate from the conservative camp who emerges, and one from the not-so-conservative camp.

I mean, for example, in 2000, John McCain was the less conservative; George W. Bush was the more conservative. In 2008, John McCain again was the less conservative — I mean, conservative, but not as conservative as Mike Huckabee. And those were the finalists. You had Bob Dole and George — and Pat Buchanan. You had George Herbert Walker Bush and Pat Robertson.

You know, I just don’t know if there is — that constituency is still out there. David mentioned 40 percent were moderates in 2008. I think, you know, it’s an angry electorate. I mean, if you are angry, Rick Perry is your candidate. If you are nervous, Rick Perry might not be your candidate. But if you are angry, he is.

And, I mean, Jon Huntsman is reasonable. He’s thoughtful. And I don’t know if there is a constituency out there for him to win.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, I agree with that. I sat down this week trying to write a column that Jon Huntsman would have his moment because the voters are out there waiting for him.

And then I looked through the polling data of the Republican electorate. It turns out those voters aren’t there, maybe 15 percent of the electorate. So I think it’s the wrong year, the wrong time for him. I do think he might as well be more aggressive.

On the show with Jeffrey, he was — he tiptoed up to staking out different positions. I think he’s really got to make it clear. Why not? And then if the people look back on this era as an unfortunate era in Republican politics in 2016 or whatever, then they will think, OK, that was the guy who was different.

JIM LEHRER: OK.

We will leave it there. Good to see you all.

MARK SHIELDS: Good to see you, Jim.