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Shields and Brooks on GOP Foreign Policy Debate, Supercommittee Failure

November 25, 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 GOP hopefuls' attempt to draw sharp distinctions on foreign policy during their latest debate, the shift on immigration among Republicans and the failure of the deficit supercommittee.
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JEFFREY BROWN: And to the analysis of Shields and Brooks, syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks, who joins us tonight from Philadelphia.

Well, David, we had a Republican presidential debate number whatever it is. I’m not sure what we’re up to.

MARK SHIELDS: Four hundred and twelve.

JEFFREY BROWN: Four hundred and twelve.

This one, David, was on foreign policy. What did you take from that as a general overview of where Republicans stand now?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, on foreign policy, I guess they’re a bit all over the map.

We have seen some incredibly dramatic events in foreign affairs, especially in Asia. And one of the interesting political debates among Republicans is that they are much more hostile — some of them are very hostile to China. Some of them are not at all hostile to China. And so that’s a big debate within the Republican Party.

I guess I would say, in general, among Republicans, there’s relatively little agreement, little focus, little energy committed to foreign affairs.

JEFFREY BROWN: Mark, what did you hear?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I thought what was most interesting to me — I agree with David, but what was most interesting to me is that — how the terms of foreign policy, national security debate has changed just under Barack Obama.

There was a time when Democrats were seen as soft, and you could hear the echoes of that old language that somehow he’d turned over the prosecution of the war on terror to the ACLU, I think was one of the charges that Representative Bachmann made. That must be news to the CIA after the capture and elimination of Osama bin Laden, and then the use of drones, to the extent they have been.

But it’s interesting, because while Obama is just in terrible, terrible shape in the question of people’s approval of his handling of the economy — his disapproval, basically — on his handling of terrorism, Americans almost by a 2-1 margin approves of what he’s done.

So that kind of changed the dynamic. And it was always interesting to see Newt Gingrich emerge. He is somebody who I think I owe an apology to, because when his entire staff quit and he stopped raising money, and went to the Greek Isles with his wife, it was said, this guy is dead. And he said, no, I will climb back in through the debates and through my big ideals.

And, in fact, he has done that.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, let me come back to Gingrich.

But, David, first, on this question of foreign policy and the switch that Mark is talking about, you said on the program I think a few weeks ago that you thought foreign policy might play a bigger role. We keep talking about how it’s all about jobs and the economy, but do you still think so, David, that foreign policy has a bigger role, potentially?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, I think absolutely. I think that now more than ever. Look at what’s happening in the world.

President Obama did a very significant shift in Asia, getting the U.S. much more involved in becoming a rival to China. That’s not going away. Second thing, Tahrir Square in Egypt. The Middle East is not going away. The Iranians — we just had another report showing the Iranian nuclear program is still going on.

The Middle East, believe me, you can’t escape it. It’s coming back. And then, finally, I think the number-one issue in shaping this election is now sitting in Berlin with Angela Merkel. I think Angela Merkel at this moment has a bigger influence on whether Barack Obama will be re-elected than Barack Obama does.

The European financial crisis gets scarier by the day. We saw a slight attack on — or a very weak bond auction in Germany this week. We saw the Italian government getting hit again by the bond markets. We saw the Germans not really yielding, not showing any willingness to do some sort of solution there, very scary possibility of a second recession there caused by Europe. And so I think foreign policy is going to merge into the economy and be a big issue next year.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, actually, interestingly enough, Mark, that didn’t come up at the debate, right?

MARK SHIELDS: It was fascinating to me that the eurozone and the crisis in Europe, whether it — I mean, what began as Greece and Italy and now is basically a threat to the entire region and to the entire unity, never did come up.

But that’s why I think that’s — they were singing an awful lot of the old songs: We’re tough. We’re hard. We’re from the military, and the other side isn’t — which I think is increasingly less relevant.

JEFFREY BROWN: You brought up Newt Gingrich.

The biggest sort of aftermath issue, I guess, on this was Newt Gingrich on immigration, when he suggested the possibility that some illegal immigrants could be allowed to stay in the country. Opponents pounced. Will that have some lasting impact?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, he had a very select group. If you have been here for 25 years, have worked, paid taxes, had children and grandchildren, and belong to a local church — now, I don’t know if you weren’t an active church member, if he would include you.

We weren’t going to round these people up.

And let’s be very frank. We are not going to round 11 million Americans — or 11 million people who are here in this country working, the estimate is, and deport them. It would be absolutely suicidal to our economy, nothing else beyond the humane elements of it or the legal questions.

But Newt Gingrich showed himself to be recklessly compassionate or a bleeding-heart liberal or something here.

JEFFREY BROWN: Recklessly compassionate.

MARK SHIELDS: Compassionate. This is — you saw what happened to Rick Perry, the governor of Texas, when he defended his state law which allows the children of undocumented immigrants who do work here and who graduate from a Texas high school with the grades to get them into university go into in-state tuition.

What is interesting is 42 percent of Iowa caucus-goers told the Bloomberg poll, Ann Selzer, the Des Moines Register pollster, who asked them if they would — if Rick Perry’s position on that tuition break or opportunity for children of immigrants would be a deal-breaker. They wouldn’t vote for him.

At the same time, in Iowa in 2008, Mike Huckabee, who had that same position the former governor of Arkansas, won the Iowa caucuses. So I’m not sure that Gingrich’s position is totally politically reckless. But it shows a vulnerability.

Given the position of the Republican Party in 2012, Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush and George Herbert Walker Bush, the last three Republican candidates, based on their positions, could not be nominated by these Republican voters, given their position on immigration.

JEFFREY BROWN: David, does that sound right to you? And what of Gingrich? Do you think it has lasting impact?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, I’m not sure Huckabee could win the Iowa caucuses this year.

MARK SHIELDS: No.

DAVID BROOKS: The party has shifted.

On Gingrich, first, it showed he has some substance, because this is a position he has always held. Second, it showed he was brave enough to say it. And in the past, if you go back through the debates, Rick Santorum, Michele Bachmann, all of them have said this. We all basically understand we’re not going to send home 11 million people who have been here for — sometimes for decades, as Mark said.

And, so, to me, it’s ultimately a character test for Mitt Romney. Mitt Romney knows in his heart of hearts that we’re not going to send these people home. Is he willing to say the obvious truth which he must believe, or is he willing to say anything to be elected?

I think Gingrich is probably not going to be hurt all that much, because I think even a lot of people who are fierce — who want to really restrict immigration rights basically know this reality. As long as they can get the border enforced, as long as they can get controls on illegals, as long as there can be enforcement on employers, they understand the reality.

But will Mitt Romney demonstrate that he understands the reality? Will Romney show that he’s willing to say the honest truth, even if it may not be politically opportune at the moment? So, to me, Gingrich is very — survives this, but it will show us a little bit more about Romney in the weeks ahead.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, speaking of Romney, Mark, he put out an ad this week that got a lot of pushback from Democrats, sort of crying foul over it, right?

MARK SHIELDS: Yes, I mean, Mitt Romney — nobody has any doubts about Mitt Romney’s abilities. His education credentials, I mean, a graduate of both Harvard Business School and Harvard Law School, business success, exemplary family life, first-rate intellect, these aren’t the questions.

The questions about Mitt Romney are his character and what the core of the man is, what he really believes. In his introductory commercial, he basically takes words not simply out of context. He takes words that Barack Obama was quoting a McCain campaign person in 2008 and then attributes them to Obama in 2011.

JEFFREY BROWN: And so the words, if we keep — Obama administration is saying, “If we keep talk about the economy, we’re going to lose.”

MARK SHIELDS: Yes. This is the same as if I were to say to you, Hitler said the Aryan race is the greatest gift to mankind and all other groups who aren’t blond-haired and blue-eyed ought to be eliminated from the earth, and you say, well, Shields say the Aryan race is supreme to all other races and all other groups ought to be eliminated.

And this — it raises character questions about him. I don’t know why he did it. There are all kinds of ways to run against Barack Obama on his record. But, to me, it just — the idea that it starts a buzz about the economy, which is what the Romney defense is, it raises questions about Mitt Romney and who he is and what he would do and what he believes, and just exactly what David said about immigration. What’s at the core of the man?

JEFFREY BROWN: David, what’s your theory on that?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, first, on the merits, I agree with Mark. If any of us did that in a journalistic enterprise, we’d be in big trouble.

MARK SHIELDS: That’s right.

DAVID BROOKS: But, as for the political reason, they did it completely aware of the reaction. They wanted the reaction. They want to show Republican primary voters that they can get in a big, furious fight with the Obama campaign. And so they did it knowing and predicting and hoping that the Obama people would react as they did.

So what’s interesting to me is, you’re in a world sort of post-morality, where you think, well, we will do whatever it takes to show we can be tough against Obama, and that somehow the line, maybe we shouldn’t say something that’s not quite accurate, somehow that line never really appeared to them.

So they’re off in an alternate universe. They did it for political reasons, because they want to show Republican voters how tough and manly they are.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, now coming to, as expected and as predicted by you two last week, David, the supercommittee failed to come up with a deal before the deadline this week. Does anyone come out of this looking good?

DAVID BROOKS: No.

I mean, we talked last week about the low reaction of the American people toward Congress, Americans’ incredibly low faith in government. There’s one thing we know that builds faith in government. It’s when people come — when the two parties come together and hammer out a deal. It’s not that people want some mushy centrism.

They want constructive competition, where they fight and then they figure out where the lay of the land is and then they get the best deal they can. And people understand that this country will go into decline if we don’t have a better growth-producing tax code, if we don’t take care of our debt, and they want some kind of deal.

So, to me, it will create what I think is already burgeoning in this election, which was an anti-both-party mood. Both parties have become minority parties, and they’re shrinking minorities, both of them.

JEFFREY BROWN: Mark, everybody looks bad?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, going in, there wasn’t great confidence.

Understand this. There were four members of Congress who had served on the Bowles-Simpson commission who had voted for that Bowles-Simpson commission. They were Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, a Republican, Mike Crapo of Idaho, a Republican, Kent Conrad of North Dakota, a Democrat, and Dick Durbin of Illinois, a Democrat.

None of the four was put on the supercommittee. There were four — among four members on the Simpson-Bowles who voted against the Simpson-Bowles, Jeb Hensarling of Texas, Max Baucus of Montana, Xavier Becerra of California, and Dave Camp of Michigan. All four of them were put on the supercommittee.

So there was a certain orthodoxy. Any deviation from what had been the party orthodoxy on either side wasn’t encouraged and was discouraged. I think the Democrats came out with a slight tactical rhetorical advantage. There’s a sense that they moved more, that the president tried harder, that the Republicans were more obstinate, the sense that the Republicans were more wed to protecting the wealthy.

I think, in the long run, however, it helps the Republicans. And the reason I say that is this, that it discredits government. The Democrats are, whether they choose to be or not, by historical mandate, the party of government. They believe that government can be an instrument of social justice and economic justice. And whether it’s eliminating polio, putting a man on the moon, ending racial segregation, rebuilding Europe, that’s what Democrats were about.

Republicans have said, no, government is not the answer. It’s the problem. And I think this further erodes public confidence in government and public trust in government. In that sense, it helps the Republicans.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, this is too depressing for a holiday weekend.

Thirty seconds, David. Anything that you’re thankful for that — in American government or politics that you would like to put out there?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, you know, this is still a fundamentally strong country. We have an amazing culture of resilience and entrepreneurialism. All the people who think we’re in decline, believe me, they’re wrong. Go out to King of Prussia Mall today, a lot of happy, full bags.

JEFFREY BROWN: OK.

Mark, can you top that?

MARK SHIELDS: No, I echo that. I am fundamentally an incurable optimist.

But it gets — it gets tested from time to time. And Black Friday is a time not to restore one’s confidence in human nature, with pepper spray being used at the Wal-Mart in San Fernando Valley.

JEFFREY BROWN: Going back to our earlier story.

(LAUGHTER)

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Happy Thanksgiving.

Mark Shields and David Brooks, thanks a lot.