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Shields and Brooks on the ‘Fiscal Cliff’ Precipice, Remembering Gen. Schwarzkopf

December 28, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks talk with Jeffrey Brown about last-minute attempts to wrangle a budget deal, what Republicans really want out of the negotiations and the political calculations for the president. Our political commentators also remember the late Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf.

JEFFREY BROWN: And that brings us to the analysis of Shields and Brooks, syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks.

Well, developing fiscal cliff, walking, walking, walking, David.

A short time ago, the president came out of the meeting with the congressional leaders, and he said he was modestly optimistic. Are you?


I think everyone is trying to look busy, so when we go over, they can say, well, we tried. He came back from Hawaii. He had to do something. And so they had a meeting.

If you don’t have new offers, you are not really making progress. You could have a nice frank exchange, but they are in the business of making a deal.

And there is really, as far as we know, no real evidence that they moved. So I remain convinced, as I have been, that we are probably going to go over. And then, once that happens, then all sort of things start aligning. Speaker Boehner gets reelected as speaker. He doesn’t have to worry about that.

It’s a lot easier to pass a tax cut for the middle class than to try to do it beforehand. Everyone goes crazy outside. And so there is a little more pressure. So I still think it’s much more likely that not much is happening.

JEFFREY BROWN: What do you think? Looking busy, that’s all that is happening right now?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I think that it was a chance for Speaker Boehner. David is absolutely right. On Jan. 3, if he has the votes in the Republican Caucus — and there is no reason to think that he doesn’t — then will be re-elected speaker of the House.

But if 17 Republicans — and we know that there are more than that number of rebels or iconoclasts in that esteemed body — decide to not vote, then John Boehner is in a limbo.

But I think, once he is re-elected as speaker on the 3rd of January with the new Congress, first of all, there are more Democrats then in the Congress, both in the House and in the Senate.

And, in a strange way, Speaker Boehner’s position is strengthened internally, but he has to face a terrible moment of truth. And that is, now they’re pushing the Senate to act first.

And if the Senate passes anything, it comes to the House, and the likelihood of what comes out of the Senate, even by way of agreement, Jeffrey, is something that will not get a majority of Republicans.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, but you are jumping ahead to next week.


JEFFREY BROWN: This meeting that was today — and I’m looking at the wire story and I hear words like constructive, positive, hopeful, optimistic.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes, constructive and positive. And it’s with Mitch McConnell. And according to the president, in his statement, it’s with Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader, and Harry Reid, the majority leader.

And they have been so incredibly productive and cooperative and collegial for so long, that it is probably — we probably — we will probably have it before 10 minutes.


MARK SHIELDS: I think there is a good chance…

JEFFREY BROWN: We could start the champagne early.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes. But the reality of $500 billion in tax cuts and spending cuts and tax increases and the negative 5 percent impact on the gross domestic product over the year will sober them up, and I think they will act.

JEFFREY BROWN: But the action is all in the Senate. Is that correct?

DAVID BROOKS: I don’t know why that is.


DAVID BROOKS: That is what people have decided.

But that doesn’t seem — one of the things that struck me — I think it struck Mark too — about the president’s press conference is, he is saying, oh, these politicians in Washington, they’re squabbling. I should write a letter to the White House and find out who is in charge here.

Well, it happens to be you, Mr. President. You are sort of involved here. And so, to me, if I have to talk about the flaws of each side, the president still is sort of, oh, those politicians should figure it out. The Republicans have a larger problem. It’s sort of a Freudian problem. What do Republicans want?

It’s been unclear for a month what their message is, what their goal is. They — sort of without defining a general strategy, they have been casting about this way and that, doing the stupid things like plan B. And they are still in that problem. They still don’t know what they want to use this moment for.

At least with the president, you know he wants to pass a tax increase on the upper class.

MARK SHIELDS: The president does have the political advantage. He has the card — political cards.

The Republicans have put themselves in the position of being seen as the tribunes of the deserving or undeserving rich. That — essentially, it comes down as the sticking point they don’t want taxes raised on the richest 1 percent, one-half of 1 percent, one-tenth of 1 percent.

And it is a terrible position for them to be in. But if some agreement is not reached early in January, then I don’t — I think that the political tactical advantage that the president has and the Democrats have will be lost if the economy starts to go south on us, because it will lead inevitably to a loss of public confidence in the public sector, in the ability of our — just to do anything…

JEFFREY BROWN: But every Friday, you guys sit here and you talk about the political calculations of our leaders. You know, we did that all the way through the campaign.

You’re suggesting that if I ask you what is the political calculation of the president right now or of the Republicans, you sound like you’re saying, you don’t know or they don’t know or…

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I think that Obama knows.


DAVID BROOKS: He knows. He looks at the next four years and he thinks, what do I want to do? I want to do some economic stuff. I want to do some climate change stuff. I want to do immigration, but I can’t do that if we’re going have a budget showdown every six months. So I need to crush them with this and get us out of the showdown era.

And that’s why they have put so much emphasis, the White House has, on getting rid of the debt ceiling limits and having at least a two-year agreement we won’t do this, because he needs to get us out of the showdown era. So I think the White House has thought this through.

JEFFREY BROWN: And crushing means even if we go over the cliff.

DAVID BROOKS: They will take the short-term hit…

JEFFREY BROWN: Blame the Republicans.

DAVID BROOKS: … … because they need to get beyond the showdown era.

Now, I should say I don’t think it’s fiscally sensible, what they are doing. But, politically, at least I understand what they are trying to do. With the Republicans, I really don’t understand what they are trying to do.

MARK SHIELDS: David Rogers, the very competent and professional reporter, congressional reporter for now Politico, formerly for The Wall Street Journal, I thought raised the central question here.

And that is everybody in Washington is enamored of Lincoln, and the movie, and how he horse-traded, and how brilliant he was, and the people he — the things he did in order to pass the 13th Amendment to the Constitution.

And David Rogers’ point is, it ought to be — instead of Lincoln, it should be Grant, that you have got to figure out a way, as Grant did, that the defeated troops can leave with their horse and their mule, so that they can go home for planting.

And David used the word crush. And I think that — I have heard that from Democrats as well. I think you have got to figure out. You are going to have to have a partner for the next four years, at least to some degree, on an ad hoc basis, not that the Republicans are all going to be collegial all of a sudden.

But to crush and humiliate, I think, would be a mistake.

DAVID BROOKS: I should say, when I was saying that, I was trying to simplify what their strategy was.

JEFFREY BROWN: Right. Right.

DAVID BROOKS: I totally agree. You have to give people a chance to get to yes.

And I have to say that I do think the only real concession that has been made since the election was Boehner essentially saying, we will at least give you $800 billion in new revenue, and we will probably go up on the rates.


DAVID BROOKS: And I don’t think the Democrats did enough to sort of draw him out on that.

Now, maybe his caucus wasn’t there yet, and they will get there in January, but I don’t think there was enough seduction, saying, we’re going to get you that, and we will give you this in exchange for that.

The president apparently, reportedly, at one meeting said, you get nothing for that. You have got to go further if you want something from me.


MARK SHIELDS: It might be easier for John Boehner if it passes the Senate, and it comes to the House and say, look, this is the only train that is leaving Dodge.

JEFFREY BROWN: And is the only train just about the tax rates or hikes or is it a grander deal?

MARK SHIELDS: No, I think it is — the president is right. I think it’s unemployment extension. And I think it will be the tax rates.

But I think there’s going to be enough matters left. The Alternative Minimum Tax would be in there as well. But I think there will be enough matters left, Jeffrey, that it will force them. And that’s why you want to have at least a minimum of goodwill. It will force them to have to deal with the larger issues still remaining. And they’re considerable.

JEFFREY BROWN: You think so?


JEFFREY BROWN: Those will still be out there.

DAVID BROOKS: There’s still the debt, the general debt problem. There’s still the crushing deficits. So they still have to do some big things, let alone do immigration reform and all the other stuff.

It’s a little like TARP, I think, what is going to happen. When they — remember, the House voted no, and then the markets just collapsed. I think we might see something like that in the first week in January, and then there will be a focusing of the minds. But there will still be the need to cooperate for the next year or two.

MARK SHIELDS: But we have already seen an erosion of public confidence. And we have seen a slowdown of economic activity.

So, I mean, it’s like this is already built in. I agree with David that the TARP analogy is a valid one. But I think TARP was so dramatic and so immediate. This has almost been a slow change. It is like it’s built in.

JEFFREY BROWN: And having what impact on the public?

JEFFREY BROWN: … cynicism and…

MARK SHIELDS: Yes, I think there is a loss of consumer — or, certainty, a diminution of consumer confidence.

And I come back to — not to sound like good government 101, but I come back to the fact of confidence in the public sector. You want to do something about immigration. You want to do something about climate change.

In order to do that, there has to be a public reservoir, a public confidence that we can act effectively, the government can be an instrument of change for the better.

If the government can’t even keep government open, I don’t see how you then say we can be transformational.

DAVID BROOKS: And even speaking in strictly economic terms, lifting the top rates from 36 to 39, whatever it is going to be, is bad. It’s not good for economic.

But the arm of doing that is minuscule compared to the harm of the country losing confidence in its government. And so even if you are the sort of person who doesn’t really like tax increases, I think you have to weigh these two harms.

JEFFREY BROWN: This is a depressing conversation.

MARK SHIELDS: Thank you. Well, let’s…

JEFFREY BROWN: Before we end, let me ask you some thoughts about General Norman Schwarzkopf.

Mark, your…

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I thought the interview with Michael Gordon was good. He’s far more knowledgeable on the subject.

But two items about Norman Schwarzkopf. One can’t reconstruct the period from 1945 to 1991. There was an erosion of public confidence in the United States military.

There was a yearning in the American psyche, American emotion for another Ike, another Douglas MacArthur, whoever, Hap Arnold, and George Marshall. And what happened was, he filled that in 1991.

It was a brilliant success militarily. And what he did, I thought — and I think of it right now with all this rush about the war drums and going to war in Iran — he was constantly saluted as a hero. And he said, it doesn’t take courage to order man into battle — order men into battle. It takes — or into combat — it takes courage to be one of those men who goes into combat.

And I always thought that was — to me, that, in many respects, is an epitaph, a reminder that it isn’t the general, remarkable though he might be. It is actually the person who puts his or her life on the line.

JEFFREY BROWN: And yet he was one of the — he became the sort of celebrity general, didn’t he?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. And I generally don’t like that. You can sort of define generals into the theatrical categories, the MacArthurs, the Pattons, or the nontheatrical, Omar Bradley, George Marshall. I tend to like the nontheatrical a better.

Nonetheless, I recall once in the ’90s, I was in Egypt. And you’re never supposed to quote a cabdriver, but I was being driven by a cabdriver in some part of Cairo. And he didn’t speak any English. But he turns to me and goes, “Schwarzkopf.” And he really loved the guy.


DAVID BROOKS: And I guess, for that theatricality, it helps. People like that kind of leader at…

MARK SHIELDS: In fairness to him, he did earn three Silver Stars in combat in Vietnam. So, he wasn’t just somebody in the — just 10,000 yards offshore viewing the action through heavy-power binoculars. He knew war firsthand.

JEFFREY BROWN: And we can’t really talk about him without talking about President George H.W. Bush. And he seems to be improving, so we will wish him well. We will say happy New Year to him and also happy new year to you guys.

MARK SHIELDS: Thank you very much.

JEFFREY BROWN: And Mark and David keep up the talk on The Doubleheader, recorded in our newsroom. That will be posted at the top of the Rundown online later tonight.