TOPICS > Politics

Shields, Brooks on Americans’ Pessimism, Scandal’s Impact on Cain Candidacy

November 4, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks discuss the week's top political news, including the sexual harassment claims against Republican presidential hopeful Herman Cain plus the mood of the American electorate while the unemployment rate remains stubbornly high.

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

Mark, what is there to say about today’s jobs report?

MARK SHIELDS: Jim, there’s one number that I think is important in understanding this.

They ask the question, pollsters do every month, do you think the country is headed in the right direction or seriously off on the wrong track. Right now, by a margin of 5-1, Americans think the country is off on the wrong track.

JIM LEHRER: And that’s both liberals and conservatives?

MARK SHIELDS: Liberals and conservatives across the board.

JIM LEHRER: Republicans…

MARK SHIELDS: Democrats, yes, old, young.


MARK SHIELDS: And you have to go all the way back to January of 2004 before you found a plurality of Americans thinking the country was headed in the right direction. It was 47-45. And then unemployment was at 5.7 — 94 consecutive months, the psychological condition of the country has been pessimism.

And these numbers aren’t going to change it. These numbers aren’t going to change it.

I mean, these numbers are better than they are worse. They’re more slightly encouraging than they are discouraging, but they aren’t going to change the direction of that psychological environment, emotional environment in which the country finds itself.

JIM LEHRER: You see it in the same terms?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, I agree.

I think we’re in for just a long period. There were some little good signs. Catherine Rampell talked about the temporary workers. Productivity was way up. When productivity is way up, they tend to hire later. But it’s just going to be a long haul.

And there’s been a lot of talk recently about the structural problems underneath the cyclical problems. And, so, for example, there’s some theory going around we went through a period decades ago where we really got rid of a lot of industrial workers. Now we could be going through a period where we’re getting rid of lot of mid-level white-collar workers as computers take over some of those managerial type jobs.

I’m sort of haunted by a conversation I had about two weeks ago with a business leader. And I was lamenting the terrible shape of the economy, and he said, we have managed to survive in it. We now know how to work in an economy that is growing 1 percent a year. We get great productivity. We are able to build our profits. We have learned to adapt to this.

And that means no hunger to hire more. And that will come, but it’s just a long time.

JIM LEHRER: Some of the comments that were made in Jeff’s discussion were words like “never,” in terms of getting a lot of these jobs back. Some of these jobs will never come back.

And that’s what you’re saying. People know that. They have figured that out.

MARK SHIELDS: They do know that — and then Ingrid Schroeder from Pew’s statistic that almost one out of three has been unemployed for over a year, I mean, that is…

JIM LEHRER: That’s an extraordinary statistic.

MARK SHIELDS: It really is, because that has a depressant on the person.

When you have been out of work that long, it’s tougher to get up and have your dauber up and be looking again. You become defensive. You become pessimistic. And employers do — David’s right about productivity’s up, but, as a consequence, because it’s very much of a hiring market, pay is down and benefits are down. So they’re getting talented workers for less than they did before.

JIM LEHRER: Now, what are the politics of this now, David?

We had in the news summary, Hari — well, what the president said, hey, there’s some signs we have — but it’s up to the Congress, in other words, it’s up to the Republicans, to do something about it. The Republican leadership, Speaker Boehner, says, no, it’s up to the Democratic Senate.

And it just has a kind of a sameness to it, doesn’t it?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, right now, it’s Charlie Cook’s proposition that there could be a rebellion against both parties. It’s possible, if this continues time and time again.

I guess I’m struck by the fact that Obama is hanging in there reasonably well. If you look at the head-to-head polls, how he’s doing against a generic Republican, slightly behind, how he’s doing against Mitt Romney, pretty much OK, tied. Personal approval rating is about 43.

Considering the condition Mark talked about, the months and months of negative, the country is in the wrong — the country is in decline, he’s actually doing OK. And so there’s a lot — there’s an aura of disappointment around him, but I would say in general it’s just the disgust with everybody, but not so much him personally.

JIM LEHRER: You agree that he’s not getting it as hot as he — as a lot of people would have expected with these kinds of numbers?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I think if I told you that by a 5-1 margin people thought the country was headed in the wrong direction, that 9.1 percent unemployment, an economy growing at whatever 1, 1.5 percent, you would say, where’s the president, you would say in the low 30s.

So I think he has deified gravity so far, and I think that’s because there is a — still a residual reservoir of good feeling, people rooting for him to succeed. And — but there is — there is still a sense of — a pervasive sense of disappointment about his presidency, and in part because hopes were so high and so many people invested that hope in him.

JIM LEHRER: Mark has just created a wonderful segue, which I am now going to use.

Speaking of deifying gravity…



Where are you headed?

JIM LEHRER: … where does the Herman Cain situation stand tonight in your eyes, my friend?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. I guess I think it’s a bubble.


JIM LEHRER: A bubble?


I don’t think that he will continue to defy gravity. I have never thought that. I thought there’s frames of mind — and we have talked about this in the past.


DAVID BROOKS: In the preseason, you have fun, Herman Cain, fun. But then when you get to choose a president, you choose a president.

And he certainly justified the belief that he’s not ready to be president. This is a job that requires discipline and organization and professionalism. And we can all talk — it’s lovely to have outsiders who are political amateurs. But if you’re actually in the White House or seriously running from it — for it, you need to have these essentially boring qualities.

And he doesn’t have them. And he certainly showed that this week. His response — forget the harassment charges — his response to just the charges, which he was warned about 10 days before they were made public, the fact that he couldn’t…

JIM LEHRER: Who warned him?

DAVID BROOKS: “Politico” magazine, which first broke the story.

JIM LEHRER: “Politico” magazine. The “Politico” magazine told him 10 days ago?

DAVID BROOKS: They were investigating and he knew they were investigating. So he knew it was coming out.


DAVID BROOKS: The fact that they didn’t do kindergarten-level preparation for this story is just incredibly damning.

And so he’s charming, people are going to like him, but you have got to practice politics at the kindergarten level.


MARK SHIELDS: At some level, Herman Cain’s candidacy is a reflection, if not a direct product, of the feverish anti-government flavor, fervor of Republicans, because they really have so little regard, Republican primary voters, for government.

JIM LEHRER: For the pros.

MARK SHIELDS: That’s right, and for government, that it’s a serious business.

JIM LEHRER: … people David was talking about.

MARK SHIELDS: That David was talking about — that a public policy credential, or a public record, or a serious interest in them, or involvement, is, if anything, a disqualification, that they found almost appealing, if is not irresistible, the fact that this is a man who sat with Judy Woodruff on this very set this week and said China, we found out, is seeking nuclear weapons.

China has had nuclear weapons since 1964. But we saw this week in Herman Cain both the limits of his strength and the exposing of his weakness. His strength has always been he’s a straight-talker. Whatever you say about Herman, you get — let Herman be Herman. And, obviously, he kept changing his story, embroidering, coming back with different events, remembering things and so forth.

He violated the first rule of all political scandals, which is get it all out immediately, answer all the questions, get it behind you

Instead of being a one-day or a two-day story, it’s now a five-day story. It’s going in the second weekend.

And his weakness is that he’s never had a campaign. He’s never had a structure. So he didn’t have people who could sit down and woodshed him.

JIM LEHRER: What about the point that people say — and you all have said it — he’s not a normal candidate for president, and people like that?


JIM LEHRER: And so he’s being judged by a whole different set of standards than the traditional candidates, the very people you were talking about earlier.


Well, if we’re in a new world and the normal laws of political gravity don’t apply, because people are so disgusted with politics, they’re willing to break all the normal patterns, well, then he will be fine. I don’t believe we’re in that mode. I think people are really disgusted with politics and they sort of like the idea of an outsider.

But I think at the end of the day, they’re going to look at the presidency as a profession, as somebody who has to do a job. And so I think they’re going to revert to more politics as usual.

Mark made the point that it’s a hostility toward government. I think it’s in part just a hostility toward outside — it’s just an outsider mood, more — not just Republicans, but Democrats, too.

One of the things that struck me, the Tea Party movement and the Occupy Wall Street movement have one thing in common — more than one, but one thing in common: no leaders. Neither believe in authority structures.

And there seems to be this hostility to building structures with leaders and organizations, and therefore liking the freelancer out there, like Herman Cain, who is a freelancer. But if you don’t have a structure, a leadership, you’re really in a very fragile situation.

And one of the things that struck me about the Cain response was that he seems to have, if not misled his own staff, not been forthcoming with his own staff. So they couldn’t provide him with the good advice, because he wasn’t being straight with them. And so I — we believe in parties, authorities, structure, leadership. It’s very old-fashioned, but it happens to work for a reason.

JIM LEHRER: What about the charges themselves, Mark, I mean, the sexual harassment…

MARK SHIELDS: Well, we’re now at three, I mean, three different women…


MARK SHIELDS: … and two significant settlements for the time, a year’s salary. So it starts to take on a plausibility, if not a credibility. And, Jim…

JIM LEHRER: But that goes back to the idea that that is a traditional hit on a traditional candidate, and the suggestion is that the reason he’s still up there in the polls, despite these allegations of sexual harassment, is because he’s immune from it because he’s not a normal candidate.

Do you buy into that at all?

MARK SHIELDS: I think the first reaction was that there is a visceral anti-media impulse in the Republican Party and Republican voters. So I think he had that going: Oh, it’s the press going after him.

Unfortunately, his own candidate — he, himself, has switched his story from it was the press, to it was the left-wing conspiracy, to it was Rick Perry…

JIM LEHRER: Rick Perry.

MARK SHIELDS: … to it was some sort of a high-tech lynching, I think was said.

Yes, he’s — Jim, in an ordinary campaign, what you start with, if Jim Lehrer is going to run for governor, David and I are working with you, we sit down and say, OK, what do we have to know? What is it?

JIM LEHRER: What’s the worst?

MARK SHIELDS: Was there a bankruptcy? Was there…


MARK SHIELDS: What was there? Why did you leave that school? You know, was that discharge honorable, and all of the rest of it?


MARK SHIELDS: And this was obviously never done.

And David put his finger on it. They had 10 days notice. He could have gone over to the National Restaurant Association, sat down with the staff, sat down with the lawyers, gone over everything, so he had an answer.

And I just don’t — I think that we have seen his high water mark. I mean, there’s no doubt about it.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, one quick final thing is that the American public, as they showed with Bill Clinton, is not as upset with scandal as we are. And I personally think that’s kind of a good thing.

JIM LEHRER: We meaning we…

DAVID BROOKS: We pay a lot of attention to these scandals, we in the media, I guess.

JIM LEHRER: We, the press, yes, the media, yes.

DAVID BROOKS: But people will say, well, a lot of people have scandals.

And I think one of the reasons his poll numbers have stayed high, hostility to the media is part of it, but partly people understand there are scandals in people’s lives. And as we have seen with Clinton and we have seen with others, it is possible to survive them, because people are willing to be tolerant, whether properly or not. But I…

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree with that?

MARK SHIELDS: Clinton was president. Clinton was president, and he was shrewd enough to lie at the outset and to say, “I didn’t have sexual relations with that woman.”

And then the idea of six months of Bill Clinton later, and his foes emerged and showed themselves to be in an overkill mode, and Clinton started to look reasonable. And I think he wouldn’t have survived as a candidate if this had come out.

JIM LEHRER: And if he had said right at the beginning, yes, I did do it.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes, I did right…

JIM LEHRER: He would have had to..

MARK SHIELDS: He had to — I think he had to, for his own survival.

DAVID BROOKS: I would just say Gennifer Flowers was right in the heat of the New Hampshire primary.

And I just think people have more of a tolerance — and I think properly. A lot of great leaders would be knocked off if we had the scandal standards we have today. So a lot of people are willing to say, he’s got these strengths, he’s got these weaknesses.

JIM LEHRER: And we have to go. Thank you both.