TOPICS > Politics

Shields and Douthat on Disdain for Washington After Debt Deal, FAA Showdown

August 5, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist Ross Douthat sort through the week's top political news, including their takes on the American public's disgust with Washington, the July jobs report and the partial FAA shutdown.

JIM LEHRER: And to the analysis of Shields and Douthat, syndicated columnist Mark Shields, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat. David Brooks is away tonight.

Mark, where do today’s or the recent economic numbers fit into what passes for government and politics in Washington right now?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I think it was a psychological lift. I don’t think it was an economic breakthrough.

But at a time of relentlessly bad news, the fact that it was not negative made it very positive.

JIM LEHRER: You’re talking about the jobs numbers.

MARK SHIELDS: Today’s jobs, yes.

JIM LEHRER: But what about the stock market?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, the stock market is sobering, to say the least.


MARK SHIELDS: And it is — you know, anybody that’s figured out — the stock market to me has just been, what do people think is going to happen on the economy? And generally speaking, people think the economy is bad, and they’re not optimistic about the future.

JIM LEHRER: Ross, do you agree with what was said in the earlier discussion, that the government doesn’t have any silver bullets left to do anything about this thing right now, the economic thing?

ROSS DOUTHAT: I think, in the short term, that’s definitely true.

I think that, given the political correlation of forces, there’s just a real limit on what — certainly what the White House can push for, and I think everything that was talked about earlier, from the payroll tax cut extension, unemployment benefits, and so on, is really just incredibly small, given the — what I think we understand to be the scope of the problem, which is why I — it seems very likely that we will in fact get yet another round of quantitative easing from the Fed at some point in the next few months.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree with what the man from S&P told Jeff, that some of the influence on the stock market at least was the terrible debate and process that has gotten between the president and the Congress that ended in this debt — this debt bill — legislation, let’s call it.

ROSS DOUTHAT: Actually, my sense is that yesterday’s stock market numbers are more a sign that actually Washington isn’t necessarily the center of the economic universe, and that there was — what we saw was sort of a sigh of modest relief from Wall Street following the deal on the debt ceiling and then everybody turned their attention to Europe, and sort of threw up their hands and said, oh, wait, you know, Europe is going down the tubes.

So I’m skeptical that — that the big sell-off had that much to do with Washington politics. I think it had much more to do with politics in Italy, Brussels and everywhere in between.

JIM LEHRER: Do you see it the same way, Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: I honestly don’t know, Jim.

I do think, politically, in answer to your question about what the administration has to do, that’s the ball game for them in 2012, is jobs. And anything else is a diversion, whether it’s debt ceiling, whatever it is. It has to be jobs, jobs. And I think they have to think beyond their comfort zone, whether it is an infrastructure bank, a national infrastructure bank, a major effort, whether it’s contractors have to buy America, unless they have an exception.

I think there’s a number of things you can do. You have to extend unemployment benefits. You have got to keep demand at some level, and plus to ease the pain that people are going through. I just think that’s where the 2012 elections is going to be fought. It’s not going to be fought on deficits. I mean…

ROSS DOUTHAT: But don’t you think, Mark, that there’s a danger for the president in — everybody talks about making the pivot to jobs, right?

But if you make the pivot to jobs and spend all of your time talking about jobs, and the jobs don’t materialize — I mean, this has been the position the White House has been in, in a sense, for the past year. You had the recovery summer. They have sort of kept trying to rhetorically pivot to jobs without having, as we said, a bullet in the chamber to do anything about it.

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I think that they have to offer initiatives that puts the Republicans on the defensive.

I mean, if the Republicans want to oppose, whether it’s jobs programs or an infrastructure bank, I think they put too much confidence, quite honestly, in the free trade agreements with Korea and Colombia, because Bill McInturff, the Republican pollster, the preeminent Republican pollster, said Americans have lost confidence, including Republicans, in free trade agreements.

ROSS DOUTHAT: And that’s been true for some time.

MARK SHIELDS: They see the United States gets rolled and it becomes a proxy for outsourcing jobs and shipping them overseas.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree with Mark, Ross, that 2012 is going to be about this issue of what the government can do or not do? Is it about deficits or is it about getting jobs through government programs or government action?

ROSS DOUTHAT: I think it’s going to be much, much, much — How many “muches” can I add? — more about jobs than about deficits, especially since there’s now been at least some kind of a partial, quasi-sort of deal that the White House can point to on the deficit.

And I think it’s going to be a debate about, who do you blame for the current economic situation, Barack Obama or George W. Bush? And I think ultimately the Obama White House is going to be stuck running a fairly negative campaign, basically arguing that, whoever the Republican nominee is, whether it’s Mitt Romney, Rick Perry or somebody else, they’re just a continuation of the Bush administration.

And if you look at the polls, more Americans still blame Bush for the current economic woes than blame Obama. And I think that’s going to be the focus of the White House’s strategy.

JIM LEHRER: How does that fit into the new poll, yesterday’s poll that was out today, CBS/”New York Times” poll about the low, low opinion that the American people have of the Congress?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, you know, the Congress, as somebody once said, serves two distinct purposes. It makes the United Nations look efficient, by contrast, and it makes the president’s job rating look good.

But we have been through three straight elections in a row, Jim, that have repealed one of the great maxims of American politics: All politics is local. All politics is not local. It is local until it’s national. And we have gone through three national elections where they have thrown the ins out. In 2006, it was the Republicans. In 2008 — in 2010, it was the Democrats.

And I think what you see in that New York Times poll is an electorate ready to throw people out again.

ROSS DOUTHAT: And you could end up with a Democratic House and a Republican president.

MARK SHIELDS: I suggested that to Peter Hart today.

JIM LEHRER: What did he say?

MARK SHIELDS: He said that would be really exceptional…

ROSS DOUTHAT: It would be exceptional.

MARK SHIELDS: … but that, given the distemper of voters, they are so angry — if you saw the words that they attached in Andy Kohut’s poll…

JIM LEHRER: Oh, it was terrible.

MARK SHIELDS: … after the deal on the debt ceiling, they — “ridiculous, offensive, outrageous, childish, stupid.” That was — those are the words the voters just volunteered.

JIM LEHRER: Well, let’s — do you think this is going to change anything? In other words, the polls and the press reaction and the overall public reaction to how Congress has conducted itself this last several months, is the Congress going to change in any way, do you think?

ROSS DOUTHAT: I doubt it.

I mean, I think that one of the new truths of American politics is that presidential elections exert — they create a kind of overhang that goes back months and months and months. And I think, basically, we have a sort of — a small window here where the super committee meets and we try and figure out if there’s actually going to be another phase of deficit reduction.

And then, after that, it’s just going to be all presidential politics all the time. And I think that that will push both parties — it will give Republicans a disincentive — they already have a disincentive to work with the White House, but it will give them an even greater disincentive. And it will give the White House an incentive to run against John Boehner and Mitch McConnell.

I think what Mark was saying is true. If Barack Obama could run for president against the congressional Republicans in 2012, he would stand a pretty good chance of winning. His problem is that he will be running against somebody else.

MARK SHIELDS: And every incumbent president who seeks reelection, the election is, by definition, a referendum on that incumbent president. And Ross’ point is that the White House’ strategy will be to say, look…

JIM LEHRER: It wasn’t us.

MARK SHIELDS: … we don’t have a particularly — litany of achievements and successes we can point to, but this other fellow…


MARK SHIELDS: … he didn’t return his library books. He used — didn’t use the revolving door. He talked to the bus driver while the bus was in motion. He violated every rule, and probably didn’t take a Breathalyzer test when he was 18 years old. I mean, that’s…

JIM LEHRER: But what — but, Mark, if you’re right that the people are angry and they’re upset at everybody, and it continues, I mean, in other words, the people that — the targets of this anger just continue to operate the same way they have been operating, can this — this can’t go on for another year, can it?

MARK SHIELDS: No. What you have to have is a sense at some point that somebody is competent at a position of leadership.

Barack Obama is in a position right now not unlike that of Bill Clinton in 1995. Bill Clinton emerged from his showdown with the Republicans, Congress then elevated as the dominant figure. I don’t think — Barack Obama emerges from his confrontation with the Republican Congress, Republican House anyway, not as an enhanced figure. He looks stronger by contrast.

ROSS DOUTHAT: By contrast, right.


ROSS DOUTHAT: But then this is the core weakness of the Obama presidency right now, which is that, even if he emerges in slightly better shape than the congressional Republicans from these debates, the overall impression that the public is getting is of presidential weakness, an inability to manage Washington.

The whole theory of the Obama campaign in 2008 was, vote for me, I’m going to change Washington, I’m going to make it work again, all the rest of it. And for the average — for the average voter who doesn’t follow politics that closely, they look at the situation in Washington and they think, well, maybe we should put somebody else in charge of it.

JIM LEHRER: The — one thing we have not talked about is the FAA thing that kind of fell between the cracks while everybody was worry about the debt ceiling debate. That was a terrible thing, wasn’t it?

MARK SHIELDS: It was a terrible thing.

JIM LEHRER: And now it’s over. They made a deal and they passed…

MARK SHIELDS: Well, they made a deal until September.

JIM LEHRER: Temporary. Temporary, yes.

MARK SHIELDS: It’s not a peace treaty.

JIM LEHRER: I should let you say that, Mark.

JIM LEHRER: Let Ross say that.

MARK SHIELDS: It gets you a pass to September. But, I mean, walking out of town…

JIM LEHRER: How do things like that happen?

MARK SHIELDS: Walking out of town — well, what happens is, you get — you get jurisdictional fights between House and Senate and between individuals and vanity, and you have got a question of swagger and power, and I’m going to show them.

And the idea of doing this and then leaving town, as the Republicans — House did in particular, but the Senate was ready to do it as well, and leaving 87,000 people without jobs, and for the FAA 4,000 people whose responsibility is airline safety, and then you find out that we’re subsidizing passengers in airports to thousand dollars a ticket — I mean, Pennsylvania, its entire air service appears to be subsidized by the federal government.

JIM LEHRER: How can something like that happen, Ross? Explain that…

ROSS DOUTHAT: Well, part of — part of it is — this is sort of an interesting thing that’s become clear since the last election.

When people think about divided government, we usually think about the way it was in the 1990s, right, where Republicans controlled the House and Senate, Democrats controlled the White House, and so on. But part of what’s driving dysfunction right now is that it is — as Mark says, it’s fighting between the House and Senate.

And so the House is in Republican hands, and they keep passing legislation that is — that Democratic senators say, well, that’s too right-wing, or it has a poison pill in it, and so on.

JIM LEHRER: Dead on arrival. Dead on arrival.

ROSS DOUTHAT: Dead on arrival.


ROSS DOUTHAT: Then the Senate, of course, it’s been an extensive amount of time since the Senate last successfully passed a budget, and so on.

And so you have this House-and-Senate back-and-forth that the White House isn’t even part of. And that’s part of what — part of what happened with the FAA is, it wasn’t — it was one house in one party’s hands, the other house in the other party’s hands. And…

MARK SHIELDS: And the House — I mean, the House did something that was really rather remarkable.

In order — some people believe fervently in the right of workers to collectively bargain for their terms of employment. The election, in other words, whether we’re going to be represented by a union or not, they changed the rule, that simply a majority of us voting, if there’s 50 of us voting, and there’s 75 of us who are members of this group, and 29 of us vote for it, then we become part of this union.

The Republicans said, no, you have to get an absolute majority of all the eligible people. That’s what they passed, which really, quite frankly, is anti-democratic in the sense of…

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree with that, Ross?

ROSS DOUTHAT: I think that there’s an issue here that comes up again and again between the role of unions in the private sector and the role of unions in the public sector and so on.

And I think that there’s an argument to be made on the Republican side on that front, that you’re dealing — you’re dealing with a different kind of situation there from…

MARK SHIELDS: You can argue that, but you…

MARK SHIELDS: You can’t argue. I mean, a majority of those voting is…

ROSS DOUTHAT: Well, if people — if every — well, but then you get in a situation where 10 people vote, and you suddenly have a union, because…

MARK SHIELDS: Well, you know, you have to have a quorum.

JIM LEHRER: Well, this has truly been interesting, this exchange that you all have had about this.


JIM LEHRER: And we’re going to end it now and go back to — no, we’re going to leave it now.

Thank you very much.

ROSS DOUTHAT: Thank you, Jim.

JIM LEHRER: Ross, good to see you again.


MARK SHIELDS: Thank you, Jim.