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Shields and Brooks on Obama’s Bargaining Skills, Fiscal Mandates and Filibusters

November 30, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
Jeffrey Brown talks to NewsHour political analysts Mark Shields and David Brooks about President Obama's repeated push to increase revenue by taxing the wealthy, the lack of constructive debate in Congress to solve America's long-term deficit, possible filibuster reform and continued criticism of UN Ambassador Susan Rice.

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

So, David, where are we on the cliff? Over, under, sideways? What’s your metaphor?

DAVID BROOKS: We’re going backwards. We’re going backwards.


DAVID BROOKS: I guess that is a good thing.

JEFFREY BROWN: Backing away would be good.

DAVID BROOKS: We’re going toward the cliff.

JEFFREY BROWN: We’re going towards the cliff.

DAVID BROOKS: And so what happened is, the election happened. Obama wins. Clearly, he ran on raising tax or raising revenue from the top 2 percent, centerpiece.

Republicans are not stupid. They sort of understand that. And so they went through a process. The day after, Boehner said, OK, revenues, but not rates, and some began to drift over, OK, rates.

And so you have had movement, until Friday or until yesterday, Thursday, when Tim Geithner goes up there and delivers an ultimatum, which is a chest-thumping stick in the eye to the Republicans.

And all the migration suddenly stops, and suddenly they get outraged. And so they are back — they are going back to where Grover Norquist wants them to be, because they are outraged because they feel they have been insulted. They feel this is not a negotiation, this is a war.

And so I think what had yesterday from the administration was a bit of negotiation incompetence, because they have pushed us — the psychological process the Republicans were going through, which they have to go through, has now been pushed way back.

JEFFREY BROWN: Where do you think we are?

MARK SHIELDS: I’m not quite clear as dire in my assessment as David.

I think that, first of all, David is absolutely right, that the president didn’t run on big ideas or a grand agenda, but he did relentlessly, endlessly emphasize that he was committed to raising taxes and returning to the pre-Bush tax cut rates of the Clinton era.

I think that we are in a little bit of a chest-bumping stage. The process…

JEFFREY BROWN: You call it chest-bumping. He called it stick in the eye. So, it’s different versions of…

MARK SHIELDS: Yes. That’s right. Well, but I think what we’re seeing — I think you see some Republicans, no, we’re not going to do a thing, we’re just going do it with closing exemptions and eliminating exemptions.

And that is really what Mitt Romney ran on, that he was going to — rates. I think Barack Obama is showing a different side of negotiation than he has in the past. He has been criticized by many, including me on occasion, for giving away the store.

JEFFREY BROWN: From his left.

MARK SHIELDS: From his left.

I mean, but on his health care bill, brought in farmers, brought in all the drug companies and said, OK, we’re not going to invest with you. You support this. And he gave away — first the negotiations on the debt ceiling, the same thing. He was negotiating with Medicare cuts right at the outset.

And people said, wait a minute. So here he comes in, he shows a little spine, a little steel, and he says, this is what I said I was going to do in the way of increases. And they say, well, wait, wait, but what about these Medicare cuts?

The only people who brought up Medicare cuts were the Republican, who talked about Obama was going to cut $716 billion. So now we’re in a situation where nobody wants his or her fingerprints on the Medicare cuts.

OK? The Medicare cuts, I can assure you — and this is going to upset a lot of people — will appear in the negotiations. They will be — paternity will be denied.


MARK SHIELDS: But they will miraculously appear. And I think we have got the outlines of what will go ahead as a deal.

JEFFREY BROWN: But who is playing what hand? Who is playing from strength here at this point?

DAVID BROOKS: Oh, on this, the president has the strength. There’s no question about it.


DAVID BROOKS: First, he won the election.

Second, the polling shows that people are more likely to blame the Republicans.

Third, if you look at the way the rules of this fiscal cliff are structured, the Republicans lose big. The defense — the cuts, the sequestration, the cuts come out of defense disproportionately. So they come out of Republican districts.

So a lot of Republicans have said, hey, this is not a great place to wage this fight. We would rather not fight here.

JEFFREY BROWN: But what do you think about Mark’s point about his — his coming on — you are he saying he’s got a strong hand, but he came on too strong still.

DAVID BROOKS: Right. And he has over-read his mandate.

The Republican — the Democratic mantra now is, oh, I don’t believe in mandates. I’m not going to over-read my mandate. And then they go in and over-read the mandate.

And the second mistake he is making, he is making exactly the mistake that President Bush made after he won reelection, when he tried to do Social Security reform. Instead of sitting down with the people you are going to need, he goes around the country, because, frankly, for recently a reelected president, it is a lot more fun to go out and give speeches around the country than to have a two-way conversation in Washington.

And so they have not had these two-way conversations. It is essentially — the actual talking process is just in abeyance.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, what do you think about this mandate question? Because earlier this week, I interviewed two congressmen on this question. And Keith Ellison, the Democrat, was talking about the mandate.


JEFFREY BROWN: The Republican was Tom Price. And he said whatever mandate the president and the Democrats think they have, it is no greater or less than the mandate that we as House Republicans also have. So there.

MARK SHIELDS: So, I mean, all respect to Dr. Price, the majority of Americans who voted in congressional elections voted for Democrats, rather than Republicans.

But because of the way the lines were drawn creatively in states like Pennsylvania and Ohio, the Republicans ended up with the majority. He’s right in the sense that — and this is the problem that John Boehner has as he tries to craft a compromise within his own caucus.

And that is that the Republicans who are in that caucus, two-thirds of them won in districts of over 60 percent, so their only worry is a primary. They don’t have to worry about Election Day in November. No Democrat is going to beat them. They are very safe Republican districts.

And so they are concerned about that. My quarrel with David is David is focusing on the process right now. And I’m saying the president is not good at congressional relations. He never has been. According to Mark Knoller at CBS News, who is the keeper of the flame in all of these things, he has played golf 104 times. Three times, he has played with a member of Congress, twice with Jim Clyburn, once with John Boehner.

I mean, he’s not…

JEFFREY BROWN: That’s a way of keeping score in Washington, right.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes. He’s just not — he’s not somebody who schmoozes. He is not somebody who is good that way.

But what we judge is not the process. We judge the product. If the product that he comes out with is good, is balanced, is fair and is just, and moves the country’s economy, and starts the decline of the deficit, then it’s good. And the process will have worked.

If it doesn’t, if it isn’t, then we can go back and revisit the process and say the process was flawed.

DAVID BROOKS: Oh, the process getting there is the hard part.

We could all in our heads draw up a deal, but he has had people over the last couple of weeks, Republicans, taking risks. Boehner took a risk. Tom Cole, member of the House, took a risk. And he undercut them. He made them look stupid with what he did yesterday.

And they feel furious. They feel burned. And so you have got to help your people along. You have got to make it more possible. And so that’s why I think it’s — you have just got to — when he did — what he offered wasn’t only a balanced deal. That would be fine if he had offered something balanced.

He offered something even worse from the Republican point of view than what he had offered a couple years ago.

So he started withdrawing things off the table, and it seemed like chest-beating.

MARK SHIELDS: We just went through an election, David. The Republicans are the ones who are for Medicare cuts. They really are.

So what he is basically saying is, OK, this is my proposal. I am going to increase taxes. I won that. OK, now where is yours?

JEFFREY BROWN: This sounds like — it must be the debate at the White House.

MARK SHIELDS: Do you want to come up with the Medicare cuts? You want to come up with the Medicare cuts? No, we don’t want to come up with the Medicare cuts.

JEFFREY BROWN: It sounds like the two guys on the president’s shoulder, right?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. Well, no, but I would say…

JEFFREY BROWN: I got to be tough because I won, or the process, I got to…

DAVID BROOKS: I got to actually cut a deal.

And he is in favor of a balanced approach. And he is president of the United States. In this, the way the world works, he proposes and then people debate his plan, or at least his approach. He doesn’t have an approach because he doesn’t have a balanced approach.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, let me ask you about another subject, the Kwame piece that we saw on the filibuster.

Is this — you know, it’s rules. It’s sort of arcane stuff, right? But is it something bigger there? Is it about real gridlock?

MARK SHIELDS: Yes, it is bigger. It’s real — it’s deadlock. It’s dysfunction.

The key was that the last time they did the filibuster rules was 1975, when they cut it to three-fifths of those present and necessary to cut off the debate, the 60 votes.

And then it was bipartisan, the reform. I mean, this is strictly partisan right now.

If the Democrats are in charge, the Democrats want to change it. But the deadlock and the dysfunction, and the use of the filibuster in the last five years as a political weapon has become just a matter of course of every day, I mean, on the simplest thing.

And I just think a very simple, simple reform would be, if you are going to lead a filibuster, you have got to be on the floor. You have got to be — you have got to be able, willing and provide the…

DAVID BROOKS: Listen, in 2005, the Republicans tried this. They were the majority then. They tried it. We called it the nuclear option.

And I thought it was terrible then. I think it is terrible now. I really think rights of minorities should be protected in the Senate. But if you look at the Senate today and the speeches today, everyone’s position has entirely flipped. So all the Republicans who were saying, oh, the filibuster is out of control, now they are for this.


DAVID BROOKS: And all the Democrats, they are suddenly for the filibuster. Tom Harkin was one of the big proponents in Kwame’s piece.

I wrote down something he wrote on May 19, 2005: “For more than two centuries, Senate rules and traditions have respected the rights of minorities.”

JEFFREY BROWN: Which I think is what we heard from Tom Coburn in the piece tonight.

DAVID BROOKS: Right, exactly. So everybody has flip-flopped on this, depending on where you sit.

MARK SHIELDS: Harry Reid, to his credit, has said that he has flip-flopped.


MARK SHIELDS: He has. He admits — he admits his position.


JEFFREY BROWN: All right, one more subject is Susan Rice.

At the beginning of this week, last weekend, it looked as though there was a bit of softening of the harsh criticism of her. She goes up to the Hill this week. She talks to some of her harshest critics. They come out and they sound as down on her as ever.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, I don’t know what — we don’t really know what happened in those meetings. The crucial one was with the moderate Republican Susan Collins of Maine, who is a very careful, very thoughtful and very moderate in temperament and in philosophy senator.

And she had a 75-minute meeting with Susan Rice and came out sounding more doubtful than before.

So I don’t know what happened in that meeting. I think the essence of this thing — and I’m guessing from the body language — is the politics. People think she’s too political, too partisan.


DAVID BROOKS: Susan Rice, and that sometimes she has been kind of — you know, she can be tough.

I think she’s at many times at the U.N. been quite effective, but she does have more of a political aura than we are used to in our diplomats. And the only thing I would say is, the job of the secretary of state is to go into a room with somebody, have a meeting and get somewhere.

And if she couldn’t get somewhere with Susan Collins, then that is a little bit of a problem.

DAVID BROOKS: What do you think? Is it about Benghazi? Is it about the politics? Is it about Susan Rice?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I mean, Benghazi is a mystery to me. I mean, I think Benghazi is, who lost China? It’s almost like the Republicans are looking for that silver bullet. And that eludes me.

She’s partisan. Susan Rice is partisan as a U.N. diplomat, unlike statesmen like John Bolton, who preceded her there, who was just such a total…

JEFFREY BROWN: I sense some…

MARK SHIELDS: … a totally bipartisan…

MARK SHIELDS: … totally bipartisan, nonpartisan figure.

MARK SHIELDS: But I found that Susan Collins — I agree with David. Susan Collins has a moderate philosophy. She’s moderate in manner.

I found her criticism a little interesting. She found fault with Susan Rice for having been the spokesman for the party — for the Democratic administration’s position on the foreign policy issue.

And, you know, Colin Powell, God bless him, and says this will be the shame of his life, he was the one who made the case for going to war in Iraq, you know, as the spokesman.

I think this. What struck me was the administration has really handled this badly. I mean, you don’t send her up to the Hill to meet with people unless you’re going have some friendly meetings too, you are going to have some positive people come out and say — Claire McCaskill, I don’t care, Amy Klobuchar — say how wonderful she is.

And at the same time, what you have got to have is other people. Where are the endorsers of her? I haven’t heard from Madeleine Albright. I haven’t heard from Hillary Clinton. She is just kind of out there by herself, which may be a message in itself.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. We will keep watching that one and everything else.

Mark Shields, David Brooks, thanks, as always.

And if you want even more from these guys — and, of course, why not, right?


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