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Shields and Brooks on Obama’s Standing With Voters, Cain’s ‘Authentic’ Ad

October 28, 2011 at 12:00 AM EST
Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks discuss the week's top political news, including where President Obama stands with voters ahead of next year's election, presidential hopeful Herman Cain's campaign ads and Texas Gov. Rick Perry's flat-tax proposal.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: And to the analysis of Shields and Brooks. That’s syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks.

It’s good to have you back with us, gentlemen.

MARK SHIELDS: Thank you, Judy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, we just heard that report about jobs in Indiana.

Let’s talk about what the president has been out there saying this week, beating the drums. He’s almost given up on talking about the jobs bill as a whole.

But, Mark, he’s out there talking about pieces of what he wants to do, helping people with underwater mortgages, student loans. Are there — is this a productive line for him to pursue?

MARK SHIELDS: I think it’s — I don’t think there are many alternatives at this point, Judy. It’s obviously not going to make any headway in Congress, and so I think this administration, you could divide it really into three sort of separate, distinct chapters.

The first two years were the big initiatives, the health care, the TARP, the auto bailout, the stimulus package, and then the defeat in 2010, followed by a year where the Republicans dominated the entire debate in terms of deficits and debt, and the president overestimated his own power to negotiate bipartisan solutions and found himself plummeting in popular support.

I think now we’re in that — the final chapter of the first term, and he’s about drawing differences and doing what he can with executive orders and simply without the involvement or consent of the Congress.

Somebody said to me the other day that executive orders are like the drones of domestic policy, that a president can launch them himself without even consulting the Congress and get a specific task done.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, are these things, David, that can make a difference?

DAVID BROOKS: Not substantively. They’re drones, but they just drop little, caps, I guess you would call them.

There’s the student loan thing, which will make some minimal difference, a couple of bucks a month for the average student in one analysis I wrote. There’s an infrastructure thing, make a minimal difference. There’s mortgage things, all very small, more symbolic to show that he’s proposing things.

The biggest one happened a couple of weeks ago, which was a series of waivers issued by the Department of Education to No Child Left Behind. And those were more substantive, to give states some more freedom. Very good. A lot of people think they were not constitutional, he overstepped his bounds.

But mostly this is a way, as Mark says, of destroying — of showing differences, I’m doing some little things, but, substantively, not important.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But is it helping him politically, Mark? We are seeing some creeping up of his numbers in the approval.

MARK SHIELDS: Well, certainly, it reversed what has been a really threatening trend for the president. His numbers had gone down, especially at the time of the August debt reduction fiasco.

And I think — I think it is, Judy. I think he’s drawing the differences between the two parties. He has to if he’s going into 2012. And it’s quite frank that he — obvious that he has not thus far in his administration defined who he is and what he stands for. He’s trying to do that now.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. I would only say he has to draw the distinction correctly. If it’s just going to be a straight liberal-vs.-conservative race, he is going to lose that race. The country has moved to the right.

And the effects — the 2010 poll, that’s where the electorate is right now. And so he can show he is for activism, but he can’t just be people vs. powerful. He can’t run the sort of Al Gore-John Kerry campaign, because the electorate, even from those days, it’s much more conservative than it was then.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You think that’s what he’s doing?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I don’t think — I think they overestimate two things, the degree of his political skill, that he can just win this thing out by sheer charisma.

I think his staff overestimates that. And, second, I think they overestimate their ability to distinguish themselves from the straight liberal. They think, oh, we have tackled Medicare. We have tackled a lot of things that made our liberal base unhappy.

The country, a lot of the independent voters do not see this. His approval rating among independents, even true independents, is about 38 percent. That’s just a terrible problem for him.

MARK SHIELDS: I disagree with David.

I think that this is not a liberal-conservative. I think it’s basically a case of where you stand, on whose side are you. And there’s no question right now — we have just seen it in the unveiling of the tax plans on the Republican side, all of which show a tilt basically to those already well-off.

And the president, the only place where there’s consensus in the public is on increasing taxes on the very wealthy, and that — and the recognition that income inequality that has seized the nation in the last 30 years, where we have seen the top 1 percent share of the income double, and that there is a sense that the rules have been rigged in favor of those who are well-off and against the middle class.

And the question is, can the — is the president convincing, and can he stay the course? I think that’s been the problem in the past. He has not stayed the course on that course that he has struck out on.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But you’re saying that he’s trying to make that argument now?

MARK SHIELDS: Oh, I think that — yes, I think that has to be his division going into 2012.

I disagree with David. I think the — the problem that Barack Obama has, having seen it most recently in a focus group in Cincinnati on Monday night, is people do not see him as a strong leader. And they do not see him as a tough negotiator. And time and again, they feel that he has caved.

And so he can’t afford politically to start one policy and then change again in September or next January. I mean, he just can’t do that.

DAVID BROOKS: I guess I would just say we have seen this before.

We had Al Gore and John Kerry and George McGovern and Michael Dukakis running against the people or the powerful, widening inequality, true, but they have run — just speaking politically, they have run on the grounds the game is rigged.

Republicans have run on the grounds, we’re one economy, we all have to grow. Let’s do what we can to unleash growth, to get back to the growing economy, where effort leads to reward. And, historically, the Republicans tend to win that fight.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, before…

MARK SHIELDS: Just, David, we have never had circumstances like we have now. I mean, it’s tough to make the powerful vs. the powerless at a time of widespread prosperity, as there certainly was in 2000, when by a margin of 2-1 people thought the country was headed in the right direction.

We now have 15 percent of Americans who think the country is headed in the right direction. And so this is an entirely different political environment than was the case in 2000 with Al Gore against George W. Bush.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, I want to ask about the Republicans, too.

But before I do, this so-called super committee, congressional super committee, David, they are — their deadline is getting closer. We are not hearing anything particularly promising out of there.

What do you think? Do you think…

DAVID BROOKS: I have asked a number of people involved in the White House and in the Congress, do you see much hope? And the short answer is no.

And one leader on Capitol Hill told me the opposition is behaving like 9-year-olds, which doesn’t suggest they’re getting very far. So my supposition is that we won’t have any big deal. We will go through the next year where there will be no agreement. And the congressional — people in the Pentagon and other government agencies are going to have to try to budget for 2013 with no knowledge of how much money is going to be there. And that’s going to be very hard.

And I think it’s going to be an economic shock to the system.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Are you hearing the same thing?

MARK SHIELDS: I am.

The only thing that could stand in the way of no deal are two things. One, Congress has a job rating of 9 percent in the latest New York Times/CBS poll. I mean, if there’s a question of survival, if we don’t come up with something, they’re saying, the congressmen, we could all lose our jobs.

Secondly, there’s the real problem of the credit rating of the United States, that we’re going beyond just Standard & Poor’s.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What the reaction would be if they don’t reach an agreement.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, let’s double back now to the candidates. We were talking about it a minute ago.

Rick Perry rolled out his flat-tax plan this week. He also got some comments — or some attention for the comments he made on the birther — whether the president was born in the United States.

David, is Perry’s flat-tax plan now helping him being taken more seriously as a candidate?

DAVID BROOKS: I hope not. I mean, it’s a joke.

I mean, if you’re going to have a plan, everybody fudges their numbers, but you have got to be within the universe of reality.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVID BROOKS: And so, in his flat tax, he’s going to reduce revenue over a decade by trillions of dollars. He says he’s going to balance the budget. He’s not going to touch defense. And it just doesn’t make sense. It’s like he’s not even putting together a plan.

He’s just got some wild idea he is going to throw together that seemed popular. And so it — he’s had a lot of bad weeks. I regard this as his worst week with this plan, which is not serious, and then stepping all over it with these comments about Obama being born abroad and all that stuff.

MARK SHIELDS: I agree totally with David. I want to identify..

JUDY WOODRUFF: You just identify with his remarks.

(LAUGHTER)

MARK SHIELDS: And I would simply say that the person I felt most sorry for were the people in Rick Perry’s campaign this week, as they’re rolling out this plan, which is, I think, basically a flawed plan…

JUDY WOODRUFF: Which they have been talking about.

MARK SHIELDS: … that they have been saying was going to be the Holy Grail and restore him to his pristine position of prominence.

He talks about the Donald Trump, the landlord reality show host, his authority on birth certificates. I mean, it was just — it was absolutely “Looney Tunes.”

JUDY WOODRUFF: He later said that he thought the conversation with Gov. Perry was private.

MARK SHIELDS: I’m sure it was. That’s what they’re talking about in private. Boy, there’s one you’re glad you’re not more involved in.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Mark, you said you were in Ohio this week. It happened to be the scene of Gov. Mitt Romney taking a position on collective bargaining for public workers. He seemed to be in a position that Republicans were surprised at, and then changing his mind about it. What…

MARK SHIELDS: You have put your finger on it, Judy.

The first question is, why was Mitt Romney in Ohio? Ohio doesn’t have a primary until June. So, why does he go to Cincinnati and to a phone bank which is making calls for Gov. John Kasich’s doomed legislation to…

JUDY WOODRUFF: Phone bank being different from a phone booth, which is…

MARK SHIELDS: That’s right. That’s right, where calls are being made to drum up support for the governor’s program. On the day that Romney arrived, the public poll said it was 21 points behind and sinking, the governor’s position, which would curtail the rights of collective bargaining for public workers.

The firefighters are thumping the Republicans, is what it turns out. So Mitt Romney comes in, goes to the phone bank, and says: No, I’m not going to take a position on what you’re phoning about.

And then he gets beaten around the head and shoulders by all sorts of conservatives for whom this is a very important issue. So the next day, in Virginia, he endorses the Ohio plan. This is Mitt Romney’s Achilles’ heel. This is what he can’t afford to do, is to back off, to pander, to hesitate, and to and fro, and flip and flop.

And it was just a bad week. The only thing that saved him was that Rick Perry was having a worse week.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Do you think there’s a deeper explanation for what Romney did?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, two things.

One, every hesitancy, mistake now looks like a character flaw for him, because it looks like flip-flopping because of the history. And the second thing, I would say the deeper intellectual problem is that Republicans all agree we have to cut spending, but they have not yet set a layer — level of principles by which we should cut and by which we shouldn’t cut.

And, therefore, they have a no-enemies-on-the-right strategy, where it’s hard for them to say no to anybody, and he is sort of muddled because of that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, the last candidate I want to talk about is Herman Cain, who got a lot of buzz this week over an Internet ad. And we’re going to show the viewers this little spot and just a portion of it. And then we’re going to talk about it.

MARK SHIELDS: OK.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Here it is.

MARK BLOCK, Herman Cain campaign: We need you to get involved, because, together, we can do this. We can take this country back.

(SINGING)

JUDY WOODRUFF: It’s different.

DAVID BROOKS: My heart melts for that smile. I just I like it. Everybody is going crazy: Oh, it’s terrible.

First of all, that guy Mark Block, that guy — I went into journalism to hang around guys like that. I thought it would be fun to hang around ne’er-do-wells like that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We should say he’s a strategist for Cain.

DAVID BROOKS: Right, a strategist for Cain.

And, you know, I don’t mind the smoking. I like film noir, Humphrey Bogart. Lauren Bacall smoked a lot. I think it’s fine. But people are going crazy about it.

MARK SHIELDS: I couldn’t agree more. I have to say that I’m so tired of the formula political ad, the candidate with the jacket over the shoulder, the two beautiful kids, and the dog walking into the sunset, you know, with jaw jutting.

JUDY WOODRUFF: This is the opposite of that.

MARK SHIELDS: This is the opposite.

(LAUGHTER)

MARK SHIELDS: This is totally — it’s authentic. It’s natural, it’s non-formulaic. And it’s completely consistent with Herman Cain’s absolutely eccentric campaign. And authentic and eccentric, I would say that those are the two…

JUDY WOODRUFF: The cigarette smoking, we don’t see that very often.

MARK SHIELDS: The cigarette smoking. People smoke cigarettes.

(LAUGHTER)

JUDY WOODRUFF: They do.

MARK SHIELDS: They do. We kind of deny it, I guess, in public buildings, but people do.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you mentioned Mitt Romney in Ohio. Herman Cain is campaigning all over the country.

MARK SHIELDS: He is leading in the latest Ohio poll, too, which may have accounted for Mitt Romney’s…

JUDY WOODRUFF: So maybe it’s good to stay away from Iowa and New Hampshire and South Carolina.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, I wouldn’t advise that as a campaign strategy.

(LAUGHTER)

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, we don’t want the two of you to stay away.

Mark Shields, David Brooks, thank you both.