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Shields and Brooks on U.S. Response to Egyptian Bloodshed, N.C. Voter ID Law

August 16, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks talk to Judy Woodruff about the week's top political news, including how the U.S. should be responding to continuing clashes in Egypt, their take on the new N.C. Voter ID law and late political columnist Jack Germond's greatest legacy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And to the analysis of Shields and Brooks. That is syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks.

Welcome, gentlemen, together again.

So we — we start with a pretty tough story, Mark, and that is what’s happened this week in Egypt, terrible turn of events, huge death tolls, so many more people wounded. What do you make of what’s happened there, and what do you make of President Obama’s handling of it?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, the context of it, Judy, is that the Egyptian military, more than simply restoring order, has gone to a brutal extent of punishing and killing its opposition.

And I think that they’re aware of the fact that there are very few repercussions, certainly based on Syria, for brutalization of a civilian population, that intervention is unlikely from the civilized world, that the United States, having been through a decade of two unhappy and ultimately unsuccessful wars to establish democracy in Iraq and Afghanistan, have no will, no appetite.

So it’s a terrible situation. I think the president’s options are quite limited. And the question is, is he seen as measured or passive? But I don’t think cutting off the money at this point, which I think probably makes sense morally and ethically, the $1.3 billion, is going to have any effect.

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They can get the money elsewhere, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia. There’s a number of countries that would love to see the Brotherhood put very much on the defensive and kept in place.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Limited options?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, I think so.

I mean, your options are always limited in the short term. The effect you can have on a culture and climate is much bigger than the effect you can have on a specific politician. They’re going to do what they want to do.

I sort of appreciate some sense of caution. We don’t really know what the military is trying to do there. Are they just trying to eliminate the Muslim Brotherhood? That’s bound not to work and to breed counterterrorism. Are they simply trying to set up a situation where a Muslim Brotherhood insurgency is crushed before it gets to start a civil war? Or are they trying to really have a period of monstrous chaos to establish red lines, so the Muslim Brotherhood goes back in the cave and they can reestablish their military rule, which they had for the past several decades?

So if they’re going all out, that’s going to counterbalance, and we will just be stuck in terrorism. If this is a phase they’re strategically thinking their way through to get to new lines, then maybe we react a little differently. The question is, what do they want in the long term?

And I sort of respect the administration for trying to figure out what this is all about. I really don’t think we know yet.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But what about the critics who are saying, the president, yes, the options were limited, but, Mark, that the United States stands for certain principles, and the U.S. doesn’t look like it stands for anything right now?

MARK SHIELDS: No, I mean, let’s be very blunt about it.

Egypt, we revere Sadat’s memory, particularly for the courage he showed as far as Israel is concerned and the Camp David accords, but Egypt has been essentially a military dictatorship since King Farouk, who was no day at the beach himself. So, there’s no democratic tradition. There’s no respect for minority rights. There’s no art of compromise.

There’s no pluralistic impulse. That, Judy, took us in this country, it took us 100 years of a civil war to accept diversity and grant rights. It took us 150 years before we allowed women to vote. So, I mean, the idea that this is going to happen, we go from Mubarak to a democratic well-being in 24 months, you know, is beyond unrealistic.

But I think the president is right. He was right yesterday to emphasize that and to emphasize that it took us a long time to get there. I mean, we weren’t born as a fulfilled society, a complete society.

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I would say we understood, even from 1787, that the groups, people who lost the election got to have a role in the society, which doesn’t seem to be respected, at least among the elites, in Egypt.


DAVID BROOKS: I would say we have two things to worry about.

The first is, we shouldn’t be allowing people to massacre their own citizens. And we have allowed that to happen in Rwanda. And we have allowed it certainly to happen in Syria. And I do think, to underline Mark’s point, Syria sent a message: This works. You can do it. No one else will do anything.

And so when we decide not to go into Syria, we have to be aware of the downstream effects that will have. The second thing is, we should be promoting democracy, but only in ways that are fitting that society. If parts of that society, as in Egypt, are extremely sophisticated about democratic rights and understand things, then we should be giving them legal help to draw up constitutions.

If parts of the society don’t get the basic concepts of legitimacy, we should be having national institutes for democracy and other things to give them those concepts. But our emphasis should always be on the ideas, not the implementation, because our ability to influence another country’s implementation is always going to be limited.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But, for now, it sounds like you’re both saying there’s no choice, the U.S. has no choice but to make statements, and that’s it.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, I would — I would be a little more averse to cutting off aid, just for — if only to clean our own hands.

It won’t have any effect. Believe me, the Saudis will gladly give them $1.3 billion.

MARK SHIELDS: I agree, but both sides are proving their bona fides.

The Brotherhood did it when they were in power, and they continue to say the lack of support from the United States, Morsi — they earn their bona fides domestically by opposing the United States, and that’s exactly what the junta — and it’s a junta, the coup — that’s what they do, the generals do.

And I just don’t — I don’t see any impulse to compromise at this point in the society. We can’t…

JUDY WOODRUFF: On either side.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. I want to be careful we don’t draw a moral equivalency here.

The military junta, what they’re doing is monstrous. There’s no question about that. But they have had a — if there’s going to be any sort of stable, gradual course towards even a civilized society, it’s not going to be the Muslim Brotherhood. It’s much more likely the military who will get them on that path.

And look what they’re doing today. They’re in the middle — they’re being attacked by the government. They are going off and killing cops and burning churches. That’s a different order of dysfunction.

MARK SHIELDS: And I’m not in any way rationalizing that.

They have had two elections. They have won both of them. We can’t all of a sudden say, because we didn’t like the results — we didn’t like the results in Guatemala in 1954. We didn’t like the results in Iran with Mossadegh. So, I mean, we just overturn that and…

DAVID BROOKS: Sometimes, anti-democrats win elections.

MARK SHIELDS: Well, no, that’s right, but, I mean — but it does come back to values as well.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Let me bring you both back to the United States.

North Carolina — the state of North Carolina this week passed what’s called a voter I.D. law, Mark and David, the first state to do this since the Supreme Court struck down part of the voting rights law.

So my question — this is a state that is Republican for the first time completely, the governor, the legislature for — in decades. Critics say this is really meant to cut down African-American turnout. How do you see it?

MARK SHIELDS: I — Judy, North Carolina always held itself out as being different. Three great American statesmen of the 20th century, Terry Sanford, governor, president of university, Jim Hunt, the premier education governor, Sam Ervin, the great senator of Watergate.

It wasn’t Alabama. It wasn’t Mississippi. It was not too busy to hate as Atlanta, but it was a different kind of Southern state. This is punitive. It’s vindictive. It’s vengeful. It’s just a way — there is no evidence of any voter fraud, of anybody using somebody else’s identification to vote.

If there were, you could say it’s an overreaction. This is a created fabrication to basically discourage, if not make impossible, voting by groups, people who belong to groups who don’t ordinarily vote Republican, who vote Democratic; 56 percent of the people in North Carolina voted on Election Day — early voting, rather. That will — there will be no early voting in this. It’s just an attempt to make it difficult to vote.

DAVID BROOKS: I guess I sort of agree.

But I would say two things. First, one of the great stories in American history and in the South in the last couple of years, couple of decades, is the gradual empowerment and enfranchisement of African-Americans. I think one’s basic attitude is you don’t want to be on the wrong side of that story.

And so I do think, if you’re supporting this, you’re putting yourself on the wrong side of that story. Having said that, do I think it’s a huge deal? Well, here, we actually have academic research on this. And there are a number of states that have these laws on the books. To what extent does it diminish voting?

And the studies suggest either very little or not at all, not significantly, statistically significant. I think if you looked at the data, you would say, in some states, it brings Democratic total vote down 0.4…

JUDY WOODRUFF: You mean by adding stricter — these stricter rules.

DAVID BROOKS: By adding these stricter rules. So, it has some effect. It’s not a huge effect.

I agree with Mark. There’s no real cause for it. There’s not all that much corruption. It doesn’t have a huge negative effect, a huge positive effect. But I do think it looks morally wrong to me, I guess I would say.

MARK SHIELDS: Those studies were done after 2012, when the effort, the all-out effort by a very well-financed campaign to get people to the polls.

DAVID BROOKS: Some. But some…


MARK SHIELDS: But this is a way of not encouraging people to vote, not enlarging the franchise. That’s what is behind the…

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. It should be said, it’s really popular. People — if you ask people on the street should you show a photo I.D. to vote, people think, oh, you can’t do that? Don’t you always do that?

DAVID BROOKS: Just looking at the polls — I’m just giving you a raw political analysis.

MARK SHIELDS: How about same-day registration?


MARK SHIELDS: They won’t — they prohibit — it goes to all sorts of — an individual voter, I can challenge David’s voting now if I’m a registered voter.

It is — this is beyond just making it more difficult or to have a voter I.D.

JUDY WOODRUFF: It’s being challenged. And we will watch it.

Just less than a minute. One of the great reporters of the last generation, Jack Germond, passed away this week. What legacy? You both knew him.

Mark, you covered politics, covered elections with him.


Jack Germond is an American original. He broke all the rules. I mean, in the sense of, you know, in a generation now of people who get up and only eat vegetarian and run 18 miles a day, Jack drank too much. He ate too much. He was a great reporter. He did it 52 weeks a year.

He believed that politics mattered. He believed that public policy mattered, and he liked the people in politics. He loved the rogues and the rakes. He liked Edwin Edwards. He enjoyed George Wallace. He liked Willie Brown. But he also liked Howard Baker. He liked Kevin White.

I mean, he just — he was just really awfully good at it. Before there were cell phones, Judy, before there was any kind of background check on us, Jack Germond did it, and he cared about it, and he was good at it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: He had a lot of joy.

DAVID BROOKS: It is worth pointing out it’s impossible to remember for young people today The McLaughlin Group, how central that was and how central he was.

It created this whole political talk, for better or worse sometimes, but that show riveted and really — and he was an almost soap opera character in that show as the core old-time reporter.

JUDY WOODRUFF: He had a lot of heart.


JUDY WOODRUFF: David Brooks, Mark Shields, thank you.

MARK SHIELDS: Thank you, Judy.