TOPICS > Politics

Shields, Brooks on Obama’s 2012 Strategy, Cordray’s Rejection, Gingrich’s Surge

December 9, 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 President Obama's re-election strategy, Newt Gingrich's poll surge in swing states and the Republican-led effort to block Consumer Financial Protection Bureau nominee Richard Cordray from confirmation.
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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.

Hello, gentlemen. It’s good to see you both.

MARK SHIELDS: Judy, good to see you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Let’s start with the president.

David, he gave a speech this week in Kansas. He talked a little bit at his news conference about this yesterday. Maybe a new fighting spirit. He’s invoking Teddy Roosevelt, talking about protecting the middle class. Is this a theme, a message that he can ride to the election?

DAVID BROOKS: It’s the one he will ride on, and it’s made a lot of liberals very happy. He’s given them something to fight for. He’s given them an overall narrative. A lot of people on the left have said, we didn’t have this. Now we have got a theme.

And I think there’s a lot to be said for the theme he’s chosen, the idea of a fair deal, the invocation of Roosevelt. I thought the speech sounded a little more like William Jennings Bryan than Roosevelt, but that’s neither here nor there.

The two problems I have with it, one are political. I think this election is about national decline. And he’s trying to make it an election about inequality. And I think people agree that inequality is a problem. I don’t think they see it as the central problem, which is about growth and really preserving the country as a growing, dynamic country.

And so I think it’s a little off-center for where the election is. And then the second is just a substantive problem. If you look for the policy implications, he sketched out these big problems. The only actual policy implied in the speech was raising taxes on the top 2 percent to pay for infrastructure spending and basic research.

And I think those are perfectly good policies. They’re extremely modest. And so I’m wondering, what is he actually going to run on? The policies he’s suggesting are quite small.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What do you see, Mark, what the president is talking about?

MARK SHIELDS: At long last. I think the president has danced around a number of theories of governance, that we could all reason together, the Rodney King approach, which came a cropper.

I think underlying this, Judy, is not simply Barack Obama as Harry Truman populist, which I think raises questions about authenticity, because by temperament the president is not a natural populist. But I think it is an acknowledgement that the Republican Party has moved incredibly far to the right.

And my evidence of that is the debates in the presidential race, where, when Chris Wallace asked a simple question, would you accept $10 in spending cuts for just $1 in tax increases, and all of them, including Jon Huntsman, the ever reasonable, moderate Jon Huntsman, said no, no, they wouldn’t do that.

Now, that’s an acknowledgment, I think, on the president’s speech that there is no point in trying to reason. They have given up on positions they have long held as a party, including the payroll tax suspension, just simply because they’re opposing the president.

So I think — I think David’s absolutely right. There are going to be two questions that voters ask in 2012. Is it working — that is, is the Obama economy, economic plan — and is it fair? And I think he obviously wants to emphasize the second as well, because the statistics on the first are not that positive.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But, David, you’re saying to focus on the fairness is off the point, that the point should be more about what’s happening to the country?

DAVID BROOKS: I think it’s about growth.

We have an inequality problem, there’s no question. But I think people — sometimes when you have — we want a strong, growing economy and we want strong wage growth. And that’s somewhat related to whether the top 1 percent get super bonuses, but it’s not totally related to that. And so you better have a strong story about generating economic growth.

And I didn’t see that story. And then, second, just politically, I agree with Mark the Republican Party has gone very far right, but if they singing the hymnal of FOX News, why do you sing to the hymnal of MSNBC?

Why don’t you do something more centrist? Which is what I think he should have done. I think he should have acknowledged that not only do we have an inequality problem. We have got a growth problem and we have got a debt problem, which is the thing he entirely dropped.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Was he missing out…

MARK SHIELDS: No. This was Teddy Roosevelt. It really was Teddy Roosevelt. You can argue what phase of Teddy Roosevelt’s specific career it was, but it was Teddy Roosevelt, vintage Teddy Roosevelt speech.

And you talk to Republicans, whether it’s John McCain or whoever else it is, and Teddy Roosevelt is their hero. It was a very adroit approach to what I call rhetorical grave robbery, that is taking the other words of the other party and employing them on your own behalf.

Republicans have done it time and again, John Kennedy lowering the tax rate from 91 percent to 65 percent, saying tax cuts are the answer. And he was doing this. President Obama has done it on Ronald Reagan, invoking Ronald Reagan’s words. So, no, I think it makes sense.

The Republicans have given him enormous running room in this. And I disagree with David in the sense that there is education. There’s no question that we are in a global economy. It’s now an information economy. It’s different. It’s wrenching. It’s discommoding to Americans. It’s discouraging to a lot of Americans.

And I think the president lays out an approach to remedy it. But these are uncertain times, and I think we’re looking for a certain trumpet, and I think he sounded it.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, he did sound one. And Mark alluded to it.

And I think it opens up the way for a potentially interesting debate, which is late Roosevelt vs. early Roosevelt. As Mark suggested, there were phases to the guy. And the early Roosevelt, the one people like me tend to like, was the person, as president, who was making sure competition was fair, but really pushing free market competition.

The later Roosevelt was a more progressive Roosevelt, who fell under a book by a guy named Herbert Croly, which the argument there was, government — business has become really big. We have to make a big government in order to counterbalance that power. And so that is a different phase of Roosevelt.

And there are two different ways of looking at the economic problem then and now. And it’s potentially a pretty good debate.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Mark, one of the things the president was upset about yesterday, besides the payroll tax cut being opposed by the Republicans, is the Republicans blocking the nomination of Richard Cordray, former Ohio attorney general, to be the new head of — or the first head of this Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

Are the Republicans justified in blocking this because they don’t like the way the agency would be set up?

MARK SHIELDS: No, they aren’t.

Nobody disputes that Richard Cordray is enormously qualified. He was a Supreme Court clerk for two different justices, a very successful attorney general who won a $2 billion settlement for retirees from these very folks that he’s charged now with controlling.

And even Dick Shelby, the Republican ranking member from Alabama, acknowledges that. What this is about, Judy, is what Tom Mann of Brookings has accurately called the modern equivalent of nullification. That is, we recall a time in this country when states just said we’re not going to acknowledge. We’re going to ignore. We’re going to repudiate laws that are passed by the Congress of the United States and signed by the president.

This was passed 61-39 in the Senate. It was passed by 45 votes in the House. It’s the law of the land. And the Republicans are simply saying, we don’t like it. We don’t like the law. Therefore, we’re not going to abide by it. We’re going to fill the position that the law created. I just think it’s indefensible.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How do you see it?

DAVID BROOKS: I think it’s defensible.

I think he’s completely qualified. I think that, as Mark says, there’s no question about that. But the question is, why should this agency not report to the normal congressional oversight process, some sort of democratic accountability?

And some agencies report to the Fed, the banking ones. Some, the consumer ones, report to the Congress. And maybe this is in a gray area. But it seems to me entirely defensible that you would want an agency like this, with very broad public ramifications, to report to the democratic process, rather than to the Fed or some non-democratic process.

So, I’m not — I really have no informed view on what — the right place for it to report for, but they have certainly got a point. And Congress has been using holds and the Senate has been using holds on appointments to influence policy since the republic was born.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, this is not skewing that, is what you’re saying?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, it comes in the context of all sorts of parties — people holding up all sorts of appointees, and I think the process is lamentable, but I think they have some points.

MARK SHIELDS: They can make an argument. If they want to change the law, they can change the law. But we don’t simply stop appointing people because we don’t like the law that created the position. That really is unacceptable and irrational.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, we’re going to switch over and talk about the Republican presidential contest.

Newt Gingrich continues to build. David, you wrote about this in your column in The Times today. His surge just seems unstoppable at this point. It’s only a few weeks old. Now we’re starting to hear, though, from the other Republicans, Mitt Romney, surrogates of Romney.

How do you see that debate, discussion?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes.

Well, the first thing I observed is — I have spent a lot of time asking political consultants and really professional political people, what are the odds that Newt could actually win this thing? And some people say who really know what they’re talking about, well, it’s 70-30 he will probably win.

Other people also who have run presidential campaigns…

MARK SHIELDS: You mean the nomination.

DAVID BROOKS: You’re right. Right.

MARK SHIELDS: Oh, OK.

DAVID BROOKS: Other people say, oh, it’s only 10 percent.

So there’s a wide variety of how seriously to take this thing. And it’s interesting to watch Republicans here in Washington react, because I think I know two people who worked with Newt in the glory days in the ’90s who think he could be a credible nominee. Almost everybody else…

JUDY WOODRUFF: Out of how many?

DAVID BROOKS: Out of all the people who are in that House Republican group.

And so there are two. Bob Walker and Bob Livingston are sort of on the team. But everybody else I know, some of them quite publicly, but most privately, they will not go out and say anything, but I think most of them think he would be a disaster for the party, because they were — when they were back there, they would organize a policy. They’d spend weeks planning it.

On the way from the office to the press conference, Newt would do a 180 and do the exact opposite. I’m very interested to see what Dick Armey says, when Dick Armey comes out and says yes or no. He hasn’t — he has been laying low, but those sorts of people will be interesting.

JUDY WOODRUFF: With friends like these…

MARK SHIELDS: The weight of the evidence is just overwhelming.

And the consensus is this, that Newt Gingrich doesn’t have the emotional stability to be a presidential nominee, let alone to be president of the United States. And I think the real test, Judy, is going to be in the next week. We have two major debates on ABC and then on FOX.

And the question is whether the candidates who are raising the charges against him right now, Mitt Romney and Ron Paul, whether they’re going to do a Dixie, whether they’re going to fade when the moderator says, will you make this charge right now on this stage to Newt Gingrich to his face?

If they do what Tim Pawlenty did in New Hampshire…

JUDY WOODRUFF: With Mitt Romney.

MARK SHIELDS: … with the Romneycare, and he folded and faded and disappeared at that moment, because it doesn’t make any difference whether your super PAC is buying these ads or it’s friends of yours who are buying these ads.

This is the strategy of the Romney campaign, Ron Paul’s campaign, all the campaigns trying to stop Newt Gingrich. And I just think this will be the test. We will find out the character. This is about character. Character is destiny. And Newt Gingrich’s character, I think, is in the spotlight.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But, David, is an all-out assault by the other Republicans likely to resonate with the voters?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I’m sure Mitt Romney is hoping that somebody else does it, which happened last time.

I mean, McCain relied on Huckabee to attack Romney. You never be the one sticking in the knife. And, right now, Romney’s approval is — he’s a lot of people’s second and third choices. It’s not like he’s unpopular. They don’t like him, they’re not enthused, but he’s acceptable to large parts of the party.

If he goes after Newt in a full-bore way, he — that drops, and it becomes much more problematic for him.

MARK SHIELDS: Or if he looks mealy-mouthed, and say, well, oh, no, those are other people saying those. I’m not — that’s…

JUDY WOODRUFF: Which is what he was saying…

MARK SHIELDS: Exactly.

I mean, that will be — I think this is going to be a real test of the character of the people making the charges against him. We will have a different feeling about all of these candidates after these two debates.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, there’s nothing mealy-mouthed about the two of you.

(LAUGHTER)

JUDY WOODRUFF: We are just delighted to have you here.

Mark Shields, David Brooks, thank you.

DAVID BROOKS: Thank you.