TOPICS > Politics

Shields, Brooks on Supercommittee Gridlock, Cain’s Stumble Over Libya

November 18, 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 gridlock in the congressional deficit supercommittee, GOP hopeful Newt Gingrich's financial entanglements and Herman Cain's stumble over questions about President Obama's handling of Libya.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: And to the analysis of Shields and Brooks. That is syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks.

Welcome, gentlemen.

So, I am tempted to ask you both, what would Charles Darwin think if he landed in the middle of our political and economic conundrum that we’re in?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, I haven’t read Bob Frank’s book, but I’m struck that social Darwinism was a very right-wipng, laissez-faire idea in the 19th century, and now Bob is using social Darwinism — or a form of Darwinism to push a more left-wing agenda.

I’m not sure I know which side is right. I’m a little dubious about taking evolutionary ideas and transposing them to the realm of economics, because, unlike animals, we have cognition, we have will, and we are able to do things.

One thing that he is absolutely right about is — and this has moved within evolutionary thinking — is that we are not only fierce individualists. We are super-cooperators. A guy named Jonathan Haidt at the University of Virginia says we are the giraffes of cooperation. We are really good at cooperating.

And so he’s right to emphasize the collective. I’m just dubious about taking Darwin and trying to make politics out of it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And we didn’t see any giraffes in that — in that…

MARK SHIELDS: No, we saw everything but giraffes.

I would say, if Charles Darwin were to come back, he would have real serious doubts about his theory. If he looked at the presidential lineup of candidates, do you think the species is improving? Chuck, do you want to take another look at this?

(LAUGHTER)

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, let’s try to — this is my effort to move from Charles Darwin to the supercommittee.

MARK SHIELDS: OK.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Mark, we got a very — another fairly pessimistic report a few minutes from Janet Hook of The Wall Street Journal.

Is that what you are hearing, that this effort to do something about the budget deficit is not going to succeed?

MARK SHIELDS: Yes. I mean, Janet Hook is a superb reporter, and I think she’s absolutely right.

I think that we are now in a situation where it’s — when the great scorer comes to write against your name, it is not whether you won or loss, but who gets the blame. I think they are both into — both sides are into sort of postmortems and positioning, rather than — there’s no realistic hope for a grand solution at this point.

And I think, in all fairness, Judy, our political process, as we know, is pretty damn polarized. And the middle in both sides of both parties has been hollowed out to a considerable degree. And the idea that this could have been fashioned at this time, in these circumstances was probably an unrealistic hope.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What are you hearing?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. I mean, I’m hearing the exact same thing.

I think the tragedy of it is, if it was ever going to work, it was going to work under these circumstances. The rules were rigged to make a deal as possible as — as possible as possible, which is to say there was going to be a clean vote on the House. They were going to meet in private. They had this sword of Damocles hanging over them. And they still couldn’t reach a deal.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And still didn’t…

DAVID BROOKS: And still — and so it’s a history of really 10 or 15 years of potential moments where we could have — somebody could have made a deal with doing some spending cuts, some tax increases, jam it all together in whatever form you want to do. And every think tank has their own version.

But the two sides are just too far apart. And, as Mark says, there is no center. And so, you know, they hope the election will solve it. That is what everybody is saying on the Hill. I’m a little dubious the election — why should this election solve it, when all the other elections haven’t solved it.

So the short answer is, welcome, Greece. We’re going to be Greece.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So — are you serious?

DAVID BROOKS: Of course, yes. No, I firmly believe that. I think, in 10 years — I don’t know when it will happen, but I’m very pessimistic that we will actually have the sort of deal we need. And at some point, what is happening in the Europe will happen here.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Mark, right now, if they don’t reach a deal…

MARK SHIELDS: If they don’t reach a deal, I mean, it’s not the end of the world.

I mean, it was written — David’s right. It was well-written to achieve a deal. But one of the real components of its reaching a deal was that if they didn’t reach a deal, there would be $1.2 trillion in cuts that they kick in, in January 2013, and that Social Security and Medicare are exempt as the deal is written. So that’s going to happen.

If nothing does happen legislatively, if the president is as stalwart as he insists he’s going to be, the Bush tax cuts will expire. OK, so that is — that expires for everybody. It’s not simply for the $250,000 and above. So you’re talking about over the next 10 years some $7 trillion in revenue, just looking at it that way narrowly, Judy, that would be coming into the government, as well as the cuts that would be imposed.

So it’s not — you know, it’s not an impossible situation. It’s not an ideal situation, but it’s not impossible.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But if they don’t reach an agreement, David, the markets presumably will react negatively. The American people, I mean, can they get any more down on Washington and on government than they are right now?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, it would be interesting to see.

Michael Bennet, the senator from Colorado, had a chart on the Senate floor this week where he compared the popularity of Congress to other institutions. And so Congress is at 9 percent. I think Paris Hilton was at 14 percent. The number of Americans who want to turn America communist was at 11 percent, so more than approve of Congress.

And so that’s very down. I think the markets have anticipated there won’t be a deal. But if they don’t go to the sequester, if they don’t actually do the cuts, which I think is quite likely — I think they’re going to try to wriggle out of them — then I think the markets will be upset.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, whatever sword of Damocles that was there won’t be there.

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I think that’s going to be the real fight. I mean, if there is a serious effort to avoid the automatic cuts, that is, to frustrate, to eliminate the sequestration that is written into it — that is the Washington term, that those are automatic cut, half of which will come out of defense — I think that is when the markets will look at it.

I do — will really take a negative look and downgrade, the fear of downgrade becomes — I think there is a real chance for the campaign of 2012. I think it’s steering us there now, that this is an issue.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What do you mean a chance?

MARK SHIELDS: A chance to discuss this, to debate it. I mean, I think that this is made for Barack Obama. Whatever anyone says about him, he did put $3 billion on the table. That’s out there. It made a lot of Democrats nervous when he did it, but I think it’s there.

And I have to say this, Judy. We now have — as a percentage of gross domestic product, taxes are the lowest than they have been in the past 60 years. Sixty years ago, we didn’t have Medicare. Sixty years ago, we didn’t have Medicaid. Sixty years ago, we didn’t have a defense budget of $700 billion.

I mean, so what we are really talking about, I mean, is that — the reality of tax increases. And I don’t think there is a rational person who can say that this can be done without spending cuts and spending curbs, serious, but with tax increases. And there was no net tax increase in anything the Republicans proposed.

DAVID BROOKS: This is why I think the campaign will not settle it.

The debate on the tax side will be between Barack Obama, who is going to promise not to raise taxes on the bottom 98 percent, and the Republicans, who are promising the bottom 100 percent. So that doesn’t get at the problem.

And then, on the Medicare side, Mitt Romney actually does have a plan to trim Medicare, but the Democrats are going to run on, don’t touch Medicare. And so I don’t think either way is going to solve — make — America will not make up its mind.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So you don’t see the campaign solving…

MARK SHIELDS: I think there is a chance. I think there is a chance for it. I agree with David that you can’t hold harmless everybody earning under $250,000. We’re all in this.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, meanwhile, what is getting attention right now on the campaign trail among the Republicans, David, is Newt Gingrich.

He’s been — continued to rise in the polls. He’s rivaling Mitt Romney, either leading or tied with Romney. But then there are these new stories that have come out about money he was earning working for Freddie Mac, for other organizations while he was working, trying to convince Congress to vote a certain way.

What does all this mean for his candidacy?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, I have never — I don’t think he’s going to be the nominee.

And I think it’s going to take a little while, but I think he’s fatally undermined by this. If you are going to be the outside voice, A., you can’t have taken the policy positions he’s taken for the individual mandate, for all this stuff. He’s got many more left-wing policies than Mitt Romney, by the way, over the course of his long career, and long and peripatetic — ideologically peripatetic career.

But then he is the quintessential Washington insider. Taking $1.7 million from Freddie Mac for being a historian, come on, that’s laughable. And then taking $37 million from various health care industries for supposedly not lobbying, but just for being a sounding board — $37 million? I mean, you know, and so I just think he’s going to be seen for what he is, as a very smart guy, a fountain of ideas who has played the Washington game and made himself very wealthy off of it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, you see his candidacy, Mark…

MARK SHIELDS: Newt Gingrich has had the ideal laboratory for his candidacy to rise, eight-person debates. All right?

Newt Gingrich is confident. He’s polished. He’s well-spoken. He speaks in short bursts that are quite coherent, quite interesting. He’s attacked the press. He has never been cross-examined. He’s never been asked about his position on cap and trade. There’s never been anything adversarial.

Maria Bartiromo of CNBC tried it briefly in the debate out in Michigan. But, I mean, he has never had — and so this is a perfect place. And what has he used as his adversary? Not the other candidates. The press. He has beaten up on the press.

But, Judy, the reality is either Mitt Romney or Barack Obama will be the luckiest man in America, whoever gets to run against Newt Gingrich. He is a walking contradiction. He’s changed his position time and again. He’s the ultimate insider.

If American business is so damn smart, what the hell were they spending $37 million for Newt Gingrich? I mean…

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well…

MARK SHIELDS: Really. I mean, Brooks is a lot smarter than Newt Gingrich, and he’s at least consistent.

(LAUGHTER)

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, one other Republican who has gotten a lot of headlines, more headlines, this week is Herman Cain.

David, he had problems answering a question about Libya when he was meeting with a newspaper editorial board, and then just yesterday was quoted as saying, what this country needs is a president who is a leader, not a reader.

DAVID BROOKS: Right. Yes.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVID BROOKS: Well, lost the teacher vote with that one.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVID BROOKS: I guess I’m a big believer in the 10,000-hour rule, that you know you should do things for 10,000 hours to actually absorb the bits of information involved in the field, whether it’s journalism, whether it’s playing the piano, or whether it’s running for president.

You should have put in the time. And there’s a reason why all these outsiders flame out, because running for president, like being a surgeon or like being a teacher, is a really hard thing to do. And it’s really hard to do if you haven’t come prepared. And he’s like a lot of people we knew. And a lot of us had this experience. You didn’t do your homework. You showed up at class, you tried to bluff your way through, and it got a little embarrassing at times.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, the coast is clear for Mitt Romney. But we can save that for another Friday.

MARK SHIELDS: I think — I mean, I’m a drinker, not a thinker. I’m a leader, not a reader.

(LAUGHTER)

MARK SHIELDS: I mean, this is — Judy, this stuff is — you know, it’s empty. It’s — they are empty words from an empty head.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Forty-five seconds left.

Steven Chu, the energy secretary, testified yesterday about Solyndra, the solar panel maker that took millions — hundreds of millions of dollars in federal loan guarantees, then went bankrupt. Is Steven Chu going hold on to his job?

DAVID BROOKS: I think so. He’s not the problem. The problem is, if you think government is a good venture capitalist, you walk into these problems.

Government should be doing basic research. It should not be in the minute details of when people are going to be laid off or what technologies a company is going to pursue.

MARK SHIELDS: I think Steven Chu handled himself well. I think even Joe Barton, the Republican from Texas, who is a pretty fierce partisan, acknowledged that he was a solid representative.

But the problem is that there are political emails that are kind of embarrassing about holding off on the layoffs and so forth. And this is a vulnerability Republicans see and they’re going to try and run with. And it’s understandable. If the shoe were on the other foot, the Democrats would do the same thing.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, we are so glad you are both with us tonight, and we will see you here next Friday night.

Mark Shields, David Brooks, thank you both.

DAVID BROOKS: Thank you.