TOPICS > Politics

Shields, Brooks on al-Awlaki Killing, Florida’s Primary Bid, Candidates’ Styles

September 30, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
Columnists Mark Shields and David Brooks weigh in on the week's top political news, including the killing of Anwar al-Awlaki, the possibility of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie joining the GOP 2012 field and Florida's bid to move its primary to January.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And to the analysis of Shields and Brooks. That is syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks.

Gentlemen, thank you both for being here this week.

MARK SHIELDS: Thank you, Judy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, the killing of the al-Qaida operative Anwar al-Awlaki, David, we heard a minute ago about the national security implications. Does this have political implications for President Obama? Does it help him?

DAVID BROOKS: It probably doesn’t help him.

I think he deserves some recognition. I think the administration has pursued this quite vigorously. There was a lot of talk from Dick Cheney that it was Sept. 10 mind-set. Remember all that? But they clearly have a Sept. 11 mind-set, if you want to put that. They pursued this very vigorously.

And in some ways, with the use of drones, they have probably been more assertive or more aggressive than the Bush administration. But they will probably, politically, get relatively little benefit. It means that the Republicans will not be attacking the Obama administration as weak. Or at least I don’t think will — that argument will have much purchase.

But it won’t be as if the country will say he is a really strong commander in chief. I think the issue will be neutralized. It won’t redound to his benefit.


MARK SHIELDS: I think, Judy, that voters already give him much higher marks as commander in chief than they do on his domestic leadership or his handling of the economy.

So there is a recognition on the part of voters how effective he has been, essentially, and his administration in dismantling al-Qaida and all but crippling that institution. The Republicans have had an historical advantage on the issue of national security. And I think it’s fair to say that Barack Obama has gone a long way toward neutralizing that for the 2012 campaign.

I agree with David that that will not be some card that the Republicans will play. At the same time, when the economy is bad, the economy is the only issue. And that’s the problem. I mean, that is going to be dominant. The elimination of al-Qaida doesn’t lead to jobs.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, so they got bin Laden. They have now got Awlaki. They have gotten other al-Qaida leaders, the president, administration instrumental, David, in knocking off — or removing, I should say, these dictators in Egypt and now Libya.

Is there anything they could do internationally that…

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I mean, I would say — I would say a couple things.

First, the — the Arab spring happened more or less on its own. I think that was a result of result of these deep fundamental courses that were set off by the democracy debates. The getting of Zarqawi — the getting of bin Laden took real courage from president. So I give him a lot of credit on that individual decision.

But basically we now have set in place — we have a lot of criticisms about the institutions of our government. But we have set in place a national security apparatus that takes al-Qaida extremely seriously and I would say goes after them quite effectively. And al-Qaida has been severely, severely dismantled over the past 10 years. And that’s something that will probably survive whatever party takes over. That institution, the national security apparatus, I think is pretty effective, set up five, 10 years ago, but now continuing quite effectively.

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I mean, he got a lift out of Osama bin Laden. But it was ephemeral.

JUDY WOODRUFF: It didn’t last long.

MARK SHIELDS: It does come back to all politics is local. And this is local. And local is the economy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Another issue that may be before the voters next year, health care reform.

The Justice Department, Mark, just asked the Supreme Court in essence to take a look at the law, whether it’s constitutional. Could that have an effect on the campaign next year?

MARK SHIELDS: It could. In all likelihood, at least the judgment is that the decision will come down in June.

And there’s one of two options. The Supreme Court will say it’s unconstitutional, and therefore dismantle what is the signature legislative achievement of the administration, the primary effort made, or say that it’s constitutional, and it will be a continuing issue in the campaign of 2012, Republicans saying that they want to repeal it, and the president and Democrats arguing that, no, it’s effective and you can feel it already. And children are covered and grown children are covered, and preexisting condition is a positive.

But the most sticking point on this is what the Supreme Court is going to address, and that’s the individual mandate.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you think it could be a factor?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, I don’t think the decision itself will be a factor. I think health care has been a significant factor.

What happened in 2009, because of health care, a lot of independents moved away from President Obama for two reasons. One, they thought he was out of touch with their concerns, because he was focusing on health care when they cared about jobs. And, two, they thought he was more — he liked government more than they did.

And since that happened in 2009, the electorate really hasn’t changed. Those independents are still not thrilled with the Republicans, but not thrilled with Obama. And whether the Supreme Court overturns or doesn’t the individual mandate, they still have taken health care as an informant toward their view of Obama. And it’s generally not good news for the president.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, let’s talk about the Republicans, renewed pressure, a lot of pressure apparently, on New Jersey’s Gov. Chris Christie to change his mind, get into the race.

Mark, what do you hear? Who’s behind this. Do you think he will do it? What do you think?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, the reality is, there’s a lot of people spontaneously behind him. I mean, there are strong financial support, a lot of New York money that would like to have him in.

But that’s not enough in itself. There’s a genuine yearning out there. The Republicans have gone through a period where they had Donald Trump. He was a flavor. They had Michele Bachmann. They had Rick Perry. Now it’s Herman Cain. And they’re looking for somebody.

They have got Mitt Romney. And it seems to be Mitt Romney is like your wise sort of spinster aunt telling the young lady that he is a good provider, he’s got good habits, he doesn’t smoke, he doesn’t drink, he keeps regular hours, he’s a nice person, he’s mannerly. Why don’t you get excited?

And they say, I want to be excited. The young lady says, I really want somebody that I’m emotionally engaged with. And…

JUDY WOODRUFF: … Mrs. Romney might…

MARK SHIELDS: Well, that’s right.

But I think Chris Christie — I think Chris Christie, you know, does excite people. What is most, I think, appealing about him is that he is the anti-politician politician. I mean, he doesn’t talk like politicians. He doesn’t say, that said. He doesn’t say not unimportant or on the contrary, notwithstanding. He says, get the hell off the beach during a hurricane to people.

And everybody can identify with that. And there is something direct. He is made for town meetings. He really is, you know, with voters. So I think there’s an appeal. Whether in fact it’s — he’s going to do it, he has said time and again he’s not going to.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Do you think he will get in, and what effect would he have if he did?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. I mean, as Mark says, he has this phenomenal, rare skill of talking about wonky issues in a normal way. And that is just not something that comes along every day. And so he has that skill.

But to follow Mark’s metaphor, I agree the Republican primary electorate wants the guy with the leather jacket. But I think the country wants the guy from the rotary club. I think they want the Mitt Romney guy, because we are in a very scary period.

I expect, before the election, there is going to be more bad news from Europe or somewhere else. And my presumption is, on elections, people always vote for the candidate who seems safer and more orderly. Obama seemed more orderly than McCain after the financial meltdown. Bush seemed more orderly.

Whether they are really going to want somebody like Chris Christie, who is rambunctious and big and not exactly orderly, I’m not convinced. I think the Republicans should be pretty happy with Romney. He has become a very good campaigner, and he seems pretty safe and orderly, which I think is probably what the country is going to want.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So you are saying these voters right now who may be excited about Chris Christie, or Herman Cain, which, as Mark said, he’s gotten a little attention — he won the Florida straw poll last week — that they will eventually gravitate…

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I’m saying they should.


DAVID BROOKS: I mean, what they want — the perception is that Obama moved the country sharply to the left, and they want somebody who will shake things up and move it just as sharply to the right. And Romney doesn’t send off those “I’m going to move the country in a radically disruptive direction” — the way Trump does, the way the Hermanator — Herman Cain, does, the way Chris Christie might.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Hermanator.

MARK SHIELDS: Hermanator.

MARK SHIELDS: It takes the Hermanator to think that Obama has moved the country radically to the left.

DAVID BROOKS: I’m just describing…

MARK SHIELDS: I know you are. I know you are.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But this does say something about — at least right now — the satisfaction with the rest of the Republican field.

MARK SHIELDS: Well, according to polls, the satisfaction has measured up — but there is just not an emotional connection.

I mean, Mitt Romney may be a logical choice, but he is not one that says, boy, oh, boy. You know, the difference — at the time when Cicero spoke, people said how well he spoke. And when Demosthenes spoke, they said, let us march.

Nobody feels like marching after hearing…

JUDY WOODRUFF: And I covered — and I covered that.


MARK SHIELDS: And people do march after hearing Chris Christie.


JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, the primary calendar, normally, we don’t talk about this. But the Florida Republicans decided today that they’re moving their vote up to Jan. 31.

And so we assume that means that Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, South Carolina are all going to move up early.

What effect, David, does this have on the contest?

DAVID BROOKS: A lot of us are going to spend New Year’s Eve in Des Moines.


DAVID BROOKS: That is the effect it’s going to have.

It will force them to move up. I think the outside effect is, you get a state, Florida, which has a minority population, which Iowa and New Hampshire don’t exactly, and South Carolina and even Nevada don’t have on the Republican side.

And so I think it gives a little more say to maybe a Latino vote or something like that. But, going back historically, can you think of a time when the scheduling of the primaries had an effect on the outcome? I can’t think of that time. So it’s inconvenient for those of us who want to be home New Year’s Eve, rather than Des Moines, but I can’t think of a time where it really affects the race.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You don’t think it benefits somebody who has money or…

MARK SHIELDS: I can think of times, because I’m older than David. But, certainly, 1968, it did, Eugene McCarthy challenging Lyndon Johnson. 1984, it did, with Gary Hart emerging.

DAVID BROOKS: The timing of the primaries.

MARK SHIELDS: The timing — well, the timing of the primary — I, mean, the importance, to me, of the first two primaries being Iowa and New Hampshire is paramount.

The only chance that an underdog, underfinanced candidate has is to compensate for that candidate’s lack of name recognition and money by spending time. John McCain could beat George Bush in New Hampshire in 2000, even though he was outspent, by some estimates, 6-1, even though he had the establishment party against him, by 114 town meetings, 114.


MARK SHIELDS: So, in a small state, he actually could meet a critical number of voters and persuade them and make a difference.

That requires time. When you compress this, like Florida is doing by moving up to the 31st, it shortens the time. It hurts the underdog, underfinanced candidate. It helps the candidate who is ahead and who has got deep pockets.

And the Republican National Committee showed themselves to be toothless tigers. They gave them the 2012 convention.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Because they had said there would be a punishment.

MARK SHIELDS: A real punishment. It’s going to cost you half the delegates, all of whom will be seated when the convention opens up in Tampa.

I mean, it’s just — it’s absolutely — or Saint Pete — it’s absolutely outrageous. And it really changes the whole dynamic, to me, of the…

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. I don’t think it’s the first time. I am not a big believer there is momentum. Remember, Barack Obama ran out of Iowa with all this momentum, and Hillary Clinton turned around, did pretty well in New Hampshire.

And the second thing, we’re not going to lose those first two states. I don’t care if they have to schedule their caucuses and primaries in September. They’re not going to not be first. They will be first. And on the Republican side, Iowa doesn’t matter that much. They are so conservative, they pick outliers. New Hampshire matters a lot.

And so there will be that New Hampshire primary, but then they will gone on to Florida, South Carolina, Nevada.

MARK SHIELDS: There is a vetting that goes on. There’s a breathing that goes on. That is why there weren’t any states scheduled until the 6th of March. That’s why they wanted to have that time. You want to see how somebody reacts to adversity and a defeat.

And, you know, the racial dimension of it that you address, Barack Obama, I think, won Iowa in 2012, and the last time I checked, the African-American population…



MARK SHIELDS: … or 2008 — was not the decisive factor in his victory.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, it is a victory to have the two of you here.

MARK SHIELDS: Oh, why, Judy…

JUDY WOODRUFF: Thank you very much.

MARK SHIELDS: Thank you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Mark Shields, David Brooks.