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Shields, Brooks on Gingrich’s ‘Skeletons,’ Bill Clinton’s ‘Second Act,’ Tax Cuts

December 2, 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 likelihood of Newt Gingrich being elected president, Bill Clinton's post-presidential work, lawmakers' struggles over the payroll tax cut extension and Rep. Barney Frank's legacy.
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JIM LEHRER: And to the analysis of Shields and Brooks, syndicated columnist Mark Shields, New York Times columnist David Brooks.

Is Bill Clinton still a man who rates listening to and paying attention to?

MARK SHIELDS: You know, Jim, John Sears, who’s a brilliant Republican strategist, worked for Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, once proposed that, in lieu of campaigning, they ought to give each presidential candidate six half-hours that he or she go alone to camera. And if they can’t be interesting for six half-hours, they shouldn’t be elected president, because they will obviously lose the country’s interest in a short time.

Bill Clinton is endlessly interesting, whatever else anyone thinks of him, and it’s a great second act. I mean, he’s at 67 percent approval today in America — you had 28 percent unapproved. At a time when the public is sour on politicians, have no use for them, Bill Clinton has risen to a different level.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree? Do you have…

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. He has the power of crystallization.

You take a lot of complex events, and then he sort of lays out his thinking. And often what he says is not blindingly new. But it’s obvious once he said it, but before he hasn’t said it, it is not as obvious. And that’s just a tremendous skill he has.

Like, what he said about Gingrich, I think that’s exactly right. We knew, as speaker, he was a poor manager. And when he was competing and sometimes cooperating with Bill Clinton, he was sometimes chaotic and disorganized, and he would let himself vent about where he was sitting on the airplane and things like that.

And so Clinton puts his finger on it, which is that how he manages the campaign will show whether he’s grown from those days or not. And so we will see over the next couple of months.

JIM LEHRER: What did you think of Clinton’s point that is in his book, and that he just repeated, that there has never been a time when an economy really grew if you had a weak or — if you a weak government. You have to have a strong government. It doesn’t have to be a big government; it has to be a strong government.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, well, I — I liked what he said that — and when you get financial crises with housing debt, it usually takes five to 10 years to get out of it. I agree with that.

I don’t think any elected official could say that. You couldn’t run on saying that it’s going to be a tough five or 10 years. I happen to think it’s the truth. So I like that candor.

It depends. I think we need a strong government. You need a strong government to do the right kind of regulation, do things like that. The problem is that a lot of government programs seem obvious beforehand, but they don’t work out as well. And so for — one of the policies he talked about in the beginning of the interview with Judy was some of the energy and retrofitting.

And that does seem like a thing that is a no-brainer. But it has been tried as part of the stimulus act. And there’s been a series of news stories about that. The job production out of this has been disappointing. Funds have gone into different projects, and you get very little job growth.

And I think the president went to a town in Indiana, promised a big green energy job initiative that was going to create hundreds of thousands of jobs. It created 75 jobs. And so some of those policies have produced new facilities, but we haven’t seen the job growth that we were hoping for.

JIM LEHRER: Mark, you heard what Bill Clinton said about the race for the Republican presidential nomination in 2012, Romney vs. Gingrich. What would add or subtract from what he had to say?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, what is fascinating is, he spoke well about Newt Gingrich, or positively about him.

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

MARK SHIELDS: But Newt Gingrich’s two greatest failures in his speakership involved, directly, Bill Clinton. The first was his pout, if you will recall, coming back from Prime Minister Rabin’s funeral, and for not being able to get off the front stairs of Air Force One, and not being treated as respectfully as he wanted to be, and almost petulant.

And the second was the impeachment of Bill Clinton, in which Newt Gingrich played a major part and was exposed as a total hypocrite to be carrying — at the same time to have been carrying on an illicit affair, extramarital affair with a staffer.

But I think that there’s no question Gingrich has emerged from the dust.

JIM LEHRER: But why? Why? What has caused this?

MARK SHIELDS: Why has he done it? He’s done it for a couple of reasons.

First of all, he has used the vehicle available to him, which has been a vehicle in this campaign almost unique, and that’s been the debates. The Republican Party wants to defeat Barack Obama. But they understand — Republican voters I have talked to and listened to, they understand they need somebody who can go toe to toe with Obama on the debate forum, and that Newt Gingrich, whether it’s deserved or undeserved, has become the intellectual heft of the Republican Party.

And they see him. They like him in that sense. He has also played it very well by being — practicing Ronald Reagan’s 11th rule, which is — 11th commandment, which is you never say anything negative about other Republicans. He has smiled all the way up. His focus has been on the press and on Obama.

And I just think, in this field, he’s looked good. He’s never been scrutinized. He’s never been engaged. Now, of course, that he’s the front-runner, he will be.

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

What’s your explanation for…

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, I would take that. I would add one other thing, which is white high school-educated voters. That’s who the Republican Party is. They’re a white working class electorate.

And we have got two prominent politicians in this country who have very little pull with those voters, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. And so, if you look at who wins the white working class, decade after decade, election after election, it’s the Republicans by 25 percentage points. And so that’s the core of the party.

They don’t particularly like Mitt Romney. They just don’t relate to him. And Newt Gingrich comes in with a little edge, a little forcefulness. And he’s not your typical white working class guy either. He’s a college professor who doesn’t let you forget how much he knows.

But he happens to be doing a lot better with those people. And so they’re looking for a home, and they’re just unhappy with Romney. I still think at the end of the day, it’s going to be Romney. I still think that is much more likely. I would have said 95 percent likely two weeks ago. Now I say 80 percent. So I’m downgrading a little.

Nonetheless, I think it’s characterological. The thing with Newt Gingrich is, each successive moment is untied to the last moment or the next moment. And what he says in one moment doesn’t necessarily govern what he’s going to do the next. And so I think he’s going to be — he’s going to be unpredictable. Let’s put it that way.

MARK SHIELDS: Let me just add one thing to that.

And that is, Jim, we have a country right now where Barack Obama has a 43 percent approval rating in the Gallup poll. No president running for re-election has ever had a job rating that low in December of his third year in the history of the Gallup poll.

Three out of four Americans believe the country is headed in the wrong direction. This is an election about what the government should do, shouldn’t do, who should pay for it, what we’re going to ask of each other, what we’re going to ask of ourselves. I mean, it should be a very serious debate, and because Obama’s stewardship has been an imperfect and flawed stewardship.

And if Newt Gingrich is the nominee, Barack Obama will coast to a second term.

JIM LEHRER: You think…

MARK SHIELDS: He will coast to a second term.

JIM LEHRER: Why?

MARK SHIELDS: Because it will be all about Newt Gingrich. Newt Gingrich — Newt Gingrich is such a flawed vessel and such a flawed candidate.

He has more skeletons than the Harvard Medical School lab does. And I’m telling you, it’s — it would be bad for the country. To have Obama coast to a re-election, untested, unchallenged, undiscussed, is really going to be bad.

JIM LEHRER: That’s tough stuff.

You agree with that, David?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, I completely agree with it.

I mean, people have forgotten a lot of things that have gone on in Newt Gingrich’s life. I think he’s enjoyable to be around. I cherish his presence in our stage. But you look at his second marriage, let alone his first marriage. You look at the interview that his second wife gave to GQ magazine.

These are scathing characterological assassinations. You look at the lobbying he’s done. You look at, as I say, how he managed the speakership. I think he’s a great presence. I love listening to the guy. But the constancy one needs — and the fact that he has no organization is no accident.

It’s the same issue. And so I agree with Mark. And the question is, will Republicans say, I sort of love listening to that guy, no way he can win? And I think, at the end of the day, they will make that determination.

JIM LEHRER: End of the day, Herman Cain going to be gone tomorrow, do you think?

MARK SHIELDS: Herman Cain. Any time, Jim, a presidential candidate voluntarily uses the word “consensual” in a press conference, it’s…

JIM LEHRER: No matter what the subject is, huh?

MARK SHIELDS: … it’s lights out. It’s lights out. Yes.

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

You agree, too? You agree with that?

DAVID BROOKS: Bill Clinton may have used that term.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVID BROOKS: But I generally — I think the voters have decided. Whether he has decided or not, the voters have decided.

MARK SHIELDS: It was Bill Clinton’s second term.

(LAUGHTER)

DAVID BROOKS: Yes.

MARK SHIELDS: He wasn’t running for re-election.

DAVID BROOKS: Fair enough.

JIM LEHRER: Yes. Yes.

The payroll tax thing that was reported on at the beginning, and we have been talking about it all week, where is that going to end up? They’re going to extend it, are they not?

MARK SHIELDS: They’re going to extend it. It’s the first time on a tax issue the Republicans have got caught on the wrong side of it.

While they were in swimming, the Democrats stole their philosophical clothes. I mean, they really did. And John Boehner understands this, but some Republicans don’t. And Republicans, who never worried about paying for the Bush tax cuts in 2001, 2003, now, my goodness, they have got to find a way to pay for them.

But I think that the pragmatists in the Republican Party, led by Speaker Boehner, including Majority Leader Cantor, understand that the Republicans can’t be on the wrong side of this.

JIM LEHRER: Of a tax cut.

MARK SHIELDS: Of a tax cut for working people…

JIM LEHRER: Sure.

MARK SHIELDS: … when they have been the tribunes of the deserving poor — the rich.

JIM LEHRER: You see it that way?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, though it will be interesting to see how they do try to pay for it.

There’s a split within the Republican Party about how to — whether to tax the rich. The official mantra of the party is, no, you don’t raise taxes on the rich. But that’s not where a lot of Republican voters are, let alone the general public.

And so the Republican electorate — or vote — politicians do not represent the Republican people, let alone the American people, on this.

JIM LEHRER: Finally, with just a minute left, any thoughts about Barney — I understand you are not a big fan of Barney Frank, and he, of course, announced his retirement this week.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. And this wasn’t ideological.

You know, you go to Capitol Hill, and we see — just on the show today — there are these scrums, where these reporters surround the politicians. And most of them are like us, who are sort of middle-aged guys, and we can take it. But there’s always a bunch of young people who are just learning the trade. And they’re nervous.

And I just saw Barney Frank as cruel to them on a couple of occasions, needlessly cruel. And I’m sure he did a lot of good things, but that needless cruelty always put me off. And that’s the lingering memory I have.

JIM LEHRER: What’s your memory?

MARK SHIELDS: Barney could be rude, he could be impatient, but he was a gifted politician…

JIM LEHRER: Gifted in what…

MARK SHIELDS: Gifted legislatively.

Well, first of all, he had a towering intellect, and he saw things more quickly. He could explain anything in 15 minutes as — quicker and more completely than anybody, not just to popularize it, and to David’s point about crystallization, but understand it and explain it to an interested person.

Beyond that, Jim, he was always interested in results. I mean, people saw him as this great ideologue. He wasn’t a great ideologue. He had a guiding philosophy. He was a practicing liberal, came as a liberal, leaves as a liberal. But he was always: The perfect was never the enemy of the good.

I mean, he never settled. In other words, he never said: Oh, I want to walk out of this feeling virtuous and more moral because my position wasn’t accepted.

And that was Dodd-Frank. He was criticized by some on the left, criticized by many in Wall Street, but he got it done, and he and Chris Dodd did, and that’s Barney Frank.

JIM LEHRER: You didn’t see that Barney Frank?

DAVID BROOKS: I think that guy existed, but you don’t like bullies. You might — in the abstract, you might like the little people, but if you don’t treat the little people around you with respect, you go a little far down in my book.

JIM LEHRER: OK.

David, Mark, thank you both.