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Shields and Gerson on the political lessons of 2013

December 27, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson join Judy Woodruff to discuss the week's top political news, including the factors that fuel economic inequality in the U.S., how Edward Snowden used technology to decentralize government power and the lessons they hope politicians learned in 2013.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And to the analysis of Shields and Brooks — or Michael Gerson. That is syndicated columnist Mark Shields and Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson. David Brooks is off tonight.

Welcome, gentlemen.

MARK SHIELDS: Thank you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, we have just heard this conversation, Mark, about inequality. We have talked about it before at this table. How big a problem is it in this country as we close out this year?

MARK SHIELDS: I think it’s a growing problem. I think it’s a real problem, Judy.

And the president has obviously — has called it the defining issue of our time, and pointed out that, over the past 35 years, we have seen a widening of the difference in income and wealth between the middle class and between the top 1 percent. The top 1 percent in the past 30 years, since Ronald Reagan was president, have seen their incomes go up by 279 percent.

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Just last year, 10 percent, the top 10 percent got more than 50 percent of the country’s income. That’s the first time that has ever happened in U.S. history. And sort of the irony of this is that, as his critics have branded him a socialist, if anything, capitalists have done exceedingly well during Barack Obama’s presidency.

JUDY WOODRUFF: If that’s the case, Michael, where is the outrage, or should be there any outrage about this?

MICHAEL GERSON: Well, there should be. I think there should.

I mean, I think you are seeing stickiness at the lower ends of the ladder and an ability for the upper class to perpetuate privilege. Often, affluent and educated people are marrying affluent and educated people. The problem here, the bad news is, it’s a very complex social problem. It’s not just a difference in income. It’s a difference in skills and education and social capital.

And those are what really make the difference in the long term. And that’s going to require institutions to change fundamentally to be able to transfer those skills and education and values.

The good news, from my perspective, is that both left and right have part of the answer here. You know, part of the problem is the decline of families and values-shaping institutions, and part of the problem is the decline of blue-collar jobs at decent wages.

You know, both left and right should have something to contribute here. Robert Putnam, who is an expert on these issues at Harvard, calls it a perfectly purple problem, meaning the left has insights into the problem. The right has insights in the problem. They should come together and have some ideas.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Mark, is there any sign or reason to think they will come together and do something about it?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I think it is.

I think, Judy, that it’s, I think, become increasingly evident that income inequality is just not bad ethics or bad morally. It’s bad economics. I mean, as Robert Reich was pointing out, when people don’t have disposable income, they can’t buy goods and services. They can’t — and spur the greater economy.

And I think the pope has contributed to this discussion. I think he’s given a moral dimension that — making the point that, while globalization has made us all neighbors, it certainly hasn’t made us all brothers, and that that is really a sense of responsibility that we have.

When mobility is lost in this country — because that has been sort of the dream, the ideal of the United States — I mean, when one out of 20 children born in the bottom fifth quintile ever makes it the top fifth, and when Michael made the point two out of three who are born in the top fifth remain there, I mean, they are there — I mean, so there isn’t that sense of going back and forth and high risk.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, the conversation right now, as we just heard, Michael, is about extending unemployment benefits.

But there is a larger — a larger question here that we’re talking about. Is there real, tangible evidence anywhere that the two sides that — you talked about the two sides have put forward ideas about this.


MICHAEL GERSON: Well, it’s a good thing they’re talking about it.

President Obama has made some eloquent speeches about it. Paul Ryan has announced this is going to be a focus of what he wants to contribute to the Republican Party over the next year. Be interesting it to see what ideas he comes up with.

I agree with President Obama on this. I think it is a central issue to the definition of the country. Americans are willing to accept inequality when there’s mobility. But, in the absence of mobility, inequality is just a caste system in which birth equals destiny.

That’s not consistent with the American ideal. There’s too much of that in America.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But I guess what I’m saying, Mark, as I’m looking, where is it on the agenda?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I think…

JUDY WOODRUFF: In the city?

MARK SHIELDS: We do things in this city by baby steps.

I think, if we do minimum wage, if we extend unemployment insurance, I think those…


JUDY WOODRUFF: You think minimum wage could get…


MARK SHIELDS: I think — yes, I think there is — I think there is no question that minimum wage — now, it’s being done seriatim, state by state, but I think there is a real chance that we can get…

JUDY WOODRUFF: That the president…


MARK SHIELDS: … get some momentum going, get in that direction.

And the key is, Judy, those public institutions, whether they’re schools or whether they’re colleges or whether they’re training centers, that — where people do acquire the skills that they can rise, I mean, we can’t underfund those. We can’t understaff those. And I think that becomes a part of the debate.

JUDY WOODRUFF: If those kinds of things get done, Michael, does that make any difference?

MICHAEL GERSON: Well, I think it should.

But I just wouldn’t underestimate how difficult this is. I mean, we have talked about education reform for a couple of decades in America. It’s hard to do. It’s hard to implement, but it’s a key to all of this, graduation from high school and then graduation from college. These are keys to social mobility. And we don’t really know how to get there right now, but we need to come up with some ideas.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Just quickly, if Democrats pushed a minimum wage increase, would Republican goes along with it, if it were a federal move?

MICHAEL GERSON: I don’t know. I think there would be significant resistance on the part of significant portions of the Republican coalition on minimum wage, for economic arguments back and forth on how this affects entry-level jobs and other things.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, very quick question about Edward Snowden.

He came out, I guess, the day before, the day of Christmas to say, mission accomplished. He, of course, is the former National Security Agency contractor who put out hundreds of thousands of pages of documents, Mark.

Mission accomplished? What should we be thinking about Edward Snowden right now?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I mean, I think there are certain facts that are irrefutable. He took an oath. He broke the oath. He’s — he violated the law.

At the same time, he started a national debate that we had not had in this country before. He’s revealed — he has certainly complicated America’s relations with foreign countries, both friendly and maybe neutral, by revealing that we had been eavesdropping on their leaders’ phones.

He led to the director of national intelligence lying to the Senate of the United States when asked if they collect data on Americans, thousands of Americans, millions of Americans. He said no. And it turns out we — every phone call, its number and its length are in fact recorded.

So I think it started a debate. I have been, frankly, surprised, Judy that there hadn’t been a more intense debate about privacy. But I can see it now gaining some traction in this country.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What is his — what are we left with at the end of this year because of the Snowden disclosures?

MICHAEL GERSON: Well, I think that he demonstrates how technology is defusing and decentralizing power in America.

Some contractor, obscure contractor, because of the way information technology works, can expose the government and have tremendous, disproportionate influence. It also makes harder for the government to keep secrets, which are sometimes necessary for national security. I mean, we’re showing the upside of technology, the it decentralizes power, but it complicates the work of government, sometimes essential roles of government. And that’s the flip side.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, this is our last Friday show before the end of the year. So I get to ask a few questions looking back.

Mark, here’s one. What should the president have learned in 2013?

MARK SHIELDS: The president should have learned, Judy, that reality counts, that how — where the rubber hits the road, where people live.

I mean, the rollout of the health care, the crowning glory of his administration, the signature issues, has been little short of a public catastrophe and a political disaster. And it’s raised serious questions about — among the president’s own supporters about his competence and about the competence of, the quality of the people that he has chosen to staff his administration.

So I don’t think there is any question that it’s been a — it should have been an incredibly sobering experience for the president.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What would you say has been the biggest lesson for — or should have been the biggest lesson for the president?

MICHAEL GERSON: Well, I think both sides had lessons here.

I mean, this is a year in which the left in some ways showed its worst face in Obamacare, overconfident, technologically incompetent. But, at the same time, the right showed its worst face, angry populism, uninterested in governing.

The spectacle was extraordinary this fall of both parties essentially self-destructing at the same time, unable to take advantage of one another’s mistakes, blaming one another, but really being at fault themselves. It’s bad for American politics when that happens.

And now we’re left to ask, well, what emerges from the ruins? Will reasonable elements of both parties be able to emerge and do things like emphasize opportunity in immigration and reforms of health care which are going to be necessary going forward or not in this? But we — it was a bad year for our political class.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Do you think lessons were learned?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I think the Republicans — I think the Republicans learned, should have learned the fundamental truth that is politics is not a seesaw.

Just because the other guy is down doesn’t mean you’re up. They’re down even further. And there’s — as Peter Hart has pointed out, they’re at the lowest point in the history of the Wall Street Journal/NBC poll of any political party.

I mean, it isn’t the people who are — the supporters of the president who have been disappointed or in some cases disaffected — by an 11-1 margin find the Republicans negative. And they have — they are a party without ideas. I mean, Michael has spoken about Paul Ryan’s plans, and they’re ambitious plans.

MICHAEL GERSON: We will see.


But there isn’t a Republican health care plan. There hasn’t been. They — all they — basically, what the Republicans have learned is this, Judy, something that the beer industry learned a long time ago. And that is, one beer company doesn’t accuse the other beer company of causing hangovers, bad breath and big stomachs, because, in the long run, it starts to hurt beer and beer sales.

And they have really hurt politics and hurt politicians, I think, by the constant, relentless negativism. And they haven’t been alone in that respect. But I think that has been the continuing line from the Republicans. And they have got to come up with a sense of governing and how they would govern.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, there’s lessons here for all of us.

It’s the end of our time at the end of this year. And we wish you both a happy new year.

Mark Shields, Michael Gerson, thank you.

MICHAEL GERSON: Happy new year.

MARK SHIELDS: Thank you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And to you.