TOPICS > Politics

Shields, Brooks on Stopgap Payroll Tax Cut Deal, Iowa Caucuses, Holiday Wishes

December 23, 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 payroll tax cut deal that ended the latest partisan standoff in Washington, their holiday wishes for the country and "Super PAC" attacks on Republican presidential candidates before the Iowa Caucuses.

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.



JUDY WOODRUFF: Good to have you here.

So,the standoff over the payroll tax cut, David, finally, yesterday, the Republicans gave in. Were they outmaneuvered? What happened here?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, I think they didn’t understand politics.

I sort of sympathize with them in principle. We have got a number of national pastimes, baseball, motherhood, apple pie and raiding Social Security to pay for our own spending.


DAVID BROOKS: And that is what we decided to do, in part for stimulus.

And, in the Senate, they reached sort of a rushed temporary compromise on how to raid Social Security to pay for some stimulative spending. But it would only do it for two months. In the House, the Republicans said there’s something squalid going on here. And they began to reject the idea.

Some of them rejected the idea of raiding it entirely, some of them just the two-month extension. They wanted the full year. Why do this two-month thing? And so they rebelled. They rebelled against their own speaker. They rebelled against the Senate.

But the country wanted the tax cuts. And sometimes, in politics, you don’t get to choose what you want. There are other people in town. And so they tried to make a stand on principle without actually having a principle. And they basically got rolled. In politics, often you don’t have a good option. You have six really squalid options, and you choose the least bad one.

And so this is their education that sometimes the circumstances are such just go with the least bad and get it over with. And maybe that will be the education for them.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Mark, how much damage has this done to the Republicans, or has it?

MARK SHIELDS: Yes, I will just add on that I think that the Republicans made a reactionary mistake, Judy, that there was — in the Republican House caucus, there should have been – David’s right.

They should have understood once House — Senate — Republican and Senate Democrats had overwhelmingly supported, Democrats in the House supported the two months, the president supported it, that they were outvoted. But I think there is in the Republican Caucus in the House, in the Congress, and in the party nationally, there is an anti-Obama reaction.

And if the president is for something — if the president endorsed the Ten Commandments, they would say, can we cut it to seven? There really is sort of that reaction. And I think that was part of — it was driven in part by ideology as well.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So you’re saying it was personal.

MARK SHIELDS: Well, the same party that will fight tooth and toenail to preserve $1.5 trillion in tax cuts that George Bush wrote into law that benefit the most wealthy among us, without ever wondering how they should be funded or financed, that never wondered how the Iraq war should be funded or financed, all of a sudden become punctilious and almost green eyeshade accountants and bookkeepers when it comes to funding this.

I agree with David that it’s a very, very questionable public policy to take the revenue stream that is dedicated to Social Security…

JUDY WOODRUFF: For Social Security.

MARK SHIELDS: … and to use it. And we have done it. This is not the first time it’s been done. But it should not be done.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So you’re both saying that’s a mistake, the whole premise behind this, whether it’s two months or a year.

DAVID BROOKS: I think it’s of dubious stimulative effect. And we are going to have to pay it. It’s not like it’s free money. We will have to pay it.

The ideological or the intellectual defense of what the Republicans were objecting to is that a permanent tax cut has long-term really economic effects. A temporary tax cut, nobody really changes their behavior. You don’t hire people because of a two-month benefit. And so that’s the intellectual thing. I agree there’s also a large personal element involved.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, if it such a bad idea to take this money out of the Social Security fund, if you — I don’t know. Do you feel it stimulates the economy?

MARK SHIELDS: I do think it’s the only federal stimulus that Republicans will vote for is this tax cut. So I can understand putting money into people’s pockets in hopes that we will stimulate, we will spend.

I can understand certainly the economic theory behind it. And I think it’s more than plausible.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So does it — excuse me. Go ahead.

MARK SHIELDS: Well, no, so I think in that sense, you can make a case for it.

But it isn’t like there’s three other policies that the Republicans would back. The Republicans would back this. And I don’t think anybody thought it was going to be for two months. The Republicans found themselves arguing process, Judy. It was terrible.

They were saying, what is the problem here is, we don’t have regular order. Now they’re appointing conferees. People’s eyes are glazing over. And the Democrats have the wall poster argument to say, we’re for preserving tax cuts.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, how much are the Democrats helped by this?

DAVID BROOKS: I think a little.

If we weren’t talking about this, we would talking about how much the Democrats gave in to the Republicans. And they actually did give in a bunch of stuff.

DAVID BROOKS: And, instead, we are talking about, why are these guys so wild-eyed and crazy? Why they can’t run an organization?

And so it helps. I don’t think it’s a huge story. I think most of the country is tuned out. We have had a whole series of budget fights. This is just another. People who care about politics mostly are focused on the presidential race. So I don’t think it’s a huge story.

Nonetheless, if you take a look at the polling, who do you trust on tax policy, the Republicans recently and historically have this huge advantage. That advantage is right now gone. And this must play a role in that.


MARK SHIELDS: David is absolutely right.

And I think it helps the president in this sense, that the reality is people look at Washington and they see hyper-partisanship, they see rancor, they see dysfunction, malfunction, however you want to put it. And I think it does two things. It makes the president look like the one grownup in the entire melodrama.

And, secondly, it hurts. It hurts Newt Gingrich, because it reminds people of what it was like when we were impeaching a president, closing down a government and stalking off Air Force One. I think, in a strange way, the only way you can account for Newt Gingrich’s slipping nationally is not that commercials are being used against him in Iowa, because nobody is seeing them outside of Des Moines, Waterloo, Dubuque and Sioux City.

But I think there is a sense, do we really want to go back to those times? And this is a reminder of it.

DAVID BROOKS: The irony is that the Newt Gingrich-Bill Clinton relationship was a model of comity compared to what we have right now.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Compared to what we see today.

Well, speaking of Newt Gingrich, David, Iowa caucuses just 11 days away. Where do things stand right now?

DAVID BROOKS: I think pretty good — well, first, pretty for Newt Gingrich.

And in Iowa, it is because of the ads. The super PACs are — loosely affiliated, very loosely affiliated with Ron Paul and Mitt Romney, are throwing in a ton of money to hit him on everything from Freddie Mac to everything else. And he doesn’t have the resources to respond or the infrastructure to respond. So he’s falling.

So, Ron Paul and Mitt Romney are now looking like the front-runners, which has got to be good news for Mitt Romney in the long term, because I don’t think Ron Paul is going to go toe-to-toe with Mitt Romney for campaign after campaign. And so I think this has been overall a good week for Romney.

The only final thing I will say, I think on this show last week or maybe two weeks ago, I said something incorrect. And Mark was right about something.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, it was the only thing…


DAVID BROOKS: And I thought when Ron Paul — when Paul made this Iran statement in the debate, where he said we should not go to war with Iran — it was a very anti-interventionist posture toward Iran — I thought, oh, that’s it for Ron Paul.

But he not only said it in the debate. He’s leading his speeches with it. And he is doing fine.


DAVID BROOKS: In Iowa, at least.

I don’t think he’s going to be a national candidate, but he’s doing quite well the last couple of weeks.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you are saying he could win the Iowa caucuses?


And I thank David for that. And if there’s a case where the reverse is true, I will make note of it.


MARK SHIELDS: No, I think that it is Romney.

The one question, point of dissent with David, is the question of being loosely affiliated. The super PACs are – I mean this is a legal fiction we go through. They’re part of the campaign. They’re an extension of the campaign, thanks to terrible, bad court decisions. This is a way of my — washing my hands of it as my super PAC attacks you. I can say, oh, well, if I intervene, that would be wrong. That would be a violation.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We’re talking about — just to clarify for people who don’t use the term, these are independent entities that raise a lot of money…

MARK SHIELDS: That’s right.

JUDY WOODRUFF: … that are not technically, legally, supposed to coordinate with the candidate.

MARK SHIELDS: That’s right, where they do raise money from supporters of one of the candidates more than other candidates. And they don’t — never attack the candidate or criticize the candidate for whom they are raising money.

They simply go after, basically have savaged Gingrich out there.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And this week, Gingrich asked Romney to stop it. And Romney said, I can’t do that, because I’d be thrown in, what did he say, the big house if…

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. And, technically, that is correct. You’re not allowed to coordinate.

But if you’re a PAC supporting Romney, it doesn’t take a genius. You should attack Newt Gingrich on Freddie Mac. That doesn’t take super strategy. And so Romney has plausible deniability. But they’re all on the same side.

And Gingrich, he doesn’t have really the record to withstand this kind of scrutiny. And now, by the way, we are seeing Ron Paul get attacked for some the racist things that went out under his name many years ago.

JUDY WOODRUFF: A little thing we reported in the news a minute ago, that Vice President Biden wrote a piece today going after Romney’s philosophy on the economy.

MARK SHIELDS: And it was in the Des Moines Register.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Interesting. Yes.

MARK SHIELDS: I do not understand that.

I think that the president’s had a good week. His numbers are up, at least in comparison. I don’t understand it. But I am sure there is some shrewdness to it.


MARK SHIELDS: But the problem on the attack, Judy, for Gingrich is Gingrich finds himself attacking and responding to the attacks. He is totally off-message now.

So he’s criticizing — he is now arguing about the campaign. Campaigns are about voters. They are not about campaigns, and they are not about candidates. And so the more that Newt Gingrich feels himself forced to respond to Romney, criticize Romney for doing this, the Romney PACs and the attacks upon him, the less he is communicating with voters, and with the message that got him to the point where he is at the front of the race.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But — so why is he doing it?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, he has got nothing left.


DAVID BROOKS: And, to me, what is happening is the gradual, silent capitulation to Romney.


DAVID BROOKS: By conservatives, because what — you see Gingrich beginning to fall. Paul is doing fine.

But you see the others, the Santorums, the Perrys, the Bachmanns. Santorum is going up a little, but none of them are surging. So we have seen the succession of anti-Romneys rising. Right now, we are seeing no new, fresh anti-Romney. And, so, to me, that makes me think people are beginning — conservatives are beginning to capitulate and accept the idea of a Romney nomination.

MARK SHIELDS: And I think probably the argument they’d make is that he is the most electable. It was not unlike the argument that Democrats made in 2004 about John Kerry in Iowa, that he was the most electable, they thought, against George W. Bush.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, I’m not going to make you two do this, but in the spirit of the season, do you have a holiday wish for anybody who is involved in politics or policy-making?


DAVID BROOKS: I will take the four congressional leaders, Nancy Pelosi and the rest, and send them up to a beautiful place in Glacier National Park in Montana, frozen lake.


DAVID BROOKS: They can hike up there. I will pay for airfare and a tent. They can stay there for a week. Maybe they could do next year’s budget up there. It would be a much better country if they were together up there.

JUDY WOODRUFF: This is Boehner, Pelosi, Reid and McConnell.


DAVID BROOKS: They could do the budget up there on their own. It’s a beautiful place. They would be inspired. This would be a much better country.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Your wish, holiday wish?

MARK SHIELDS: Wow. Talk about the Grinch over here, for goodness’ sakes.


MARK SHIELDS: My wish is that everybody, whoever he or she is, has a colleague as civil and decent and honorable as David Brooks.


The two are kind of connected, aren’t they?

MARK SHIELDS: Yes. I always thought he was honorable until…


DAVID BROOKS: … inspire the country.


DAVID BROOKS: Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

MARK SHIELDS: … time to time.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Happy holidays to you both. We will see you next week.

MARK SHIELDS: Thank you.