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Shields and Brooks on health care launch finger-pointing, spying on friends

October 25, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks join Judy Woodruff to discuss the week's top political news, including who's to blame for the launch of the glitchy health care website, how U.S. spying allegations may have damaged trust between the U.S. and its allies and soul-searching for the GOP.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, while some are worrying about how to survive, it’s been a big week for finger-pointing here in Washington.

And joining us to explain why are Shields and Brooks. That’s syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks.

So, gentlemen, we’re not going to talk about how to survive in Washington. But we are going to talk about the finger-pointing, David, some of it this week around the Web site.

Do we now understand what has gone wrong?

DAVID BROOKS: A little better.

We knew that there were all these contractors. And we knew that the — instead of contracting out the job of coordinating contractors, the government kept that to themselves. And that’s where the biggest problem seems to have been.

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But there were other problems, some of them which were political. They were very late in writing the rules that all the contractors needed to follow because they didn’t want to give the Republicans, Mitt Romney, a target during the campaign, so they waited until after the campaign to write the rules, and then they delayed other things.

And then there’s just the inherent complexity of the law. And so this is going to stretch onward. And at the same time, they had 3.5 years to do this, which is more or less the easiest part of the health care law. Some of the more challenging things, getting the young people to sign up, that’s still to come.

And so whether we have confidence in their ability to do that, that’s an issue.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Confidence yet, Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: I think it’s hard to argue, Judy, even supporters of the law, that it hasn’t been disappointing and even discouraging, the experience up to now.

But if a year from now, when the subject of health care comes up, people are talking about their next-door neighbor with a chronic disability without who for the first time has health coverage or mammogram or expanded mental health coverage, then it will have worked and this will be something that is in the history books.

If they’re still talking about the nightmare of dealing or negotiating with health insurance or the portal to it, then you can write off 2014 for the Democrats, and you can to a large degree put down the Obama administration as failed.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, is it clear now who is to blame, or does it matter, David, at this point for all this?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I mean, there are many actors within HHS and elsewhere who I guess you could assign blame to.

There is a big debate, should somebody be fired about this? I’m a little dubious about…

JUDY WOODRUFF: Including Sebelius, secretary…


DAVID BROOKS: Including Sebelius, Secretary Sebelius.

I’m a little dubious that fighting matters. This was deeply within the institution. Clearly, the president wasn’t told. He wasn’t told how badly things were going. Some people within the bureaucracy understood that. He was told it was going well. He wasn’t told how badly — how late the initial testing was. We now know that was only a couple weeks before the launch.

It wasn’t your basic standard procedure as this thing is done. I don’t think firing is necessarily the right thing to do. But, basically, excising — or exporting more of it out to the private sector, that seems to be part of what they’re doing.


MARK SHIELDS: I couldn’t disagree more.

I think what we saw yesterday at the hearings is an Olympic event of finger-pointing. And we have seen this privatization fever that was particularly prominent — Don Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney — but it is the idea that we can do it all by contractor.

Well, when you do it by contractors, it’s essentially an effort to undermine public employment, to disable public employee unions, and ostensibly to cut the costs. Well, it increases costs. But there is no accountability. Now we do have, with Jeff Zients there as the czar, we have both accountability…


JUDY WOODRUFF: Former budget director. They brought him back.

MARK SHIELDS: That’s right, brought back.

We now have accountability and responsibility in one place. I would add to that, Judy, if you are going to — Secretary Sebelius, who is the point person on this, if he thinks that — or anybody thinks that her resignation, her firing is going to satisfy Darrell Issa and Republican critics of this, I have got a bridge I want to sell them across Kansas.

I mean, this is not. It’s just — it’s going to increase the fever. I’m not in any way denying responsibility. But, I mean, that would just be silly. And the other final point is, in each succeeding administration, they have concentrated more and more power in the White House, more and more decisions.

George Bush did more than Bill Clinton. Bill Clinton did more than the first President Bush did. And Barack Obama’s administration has taken that to a level we have never seen. So the idea that the president wasn’t informed of it is a pretty grievous indictment of the president’s staff.

DAVID BROOKS: I would just say quickly, who messed up here? It wasn’t the private contractors. It was HHS. It was the government that messed up in the coordination of all the private contractors.

Apparently, the individual pieces were working. It was the central government body that wasn’t working, because they’re just not built the way a business is, to run a complicated Web site. And I’m not sure they have ever shown evidence of that.

As for the firing, again, I never think it is politically useful, but they do have to certainly up the management skills as we get to, as I say, the complicated stuff that is coming down the road. And so thinking more about having actual managers in there would be useful, whether for — retribution for the past doesn’t matter. Getting a more efficient structure…

MARK SHIELDS: I will happily compare the management of Medicare to the management of J.P. Morgan and to which is more…


DAVID BROOKS: Well, it’s hard to compare, but Medicare, it should be said, is a much simpler program…


MARK SHIELDS: It is. I agree. This is a complicated program.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But both of you sound like now you think, with bringing back this man, Jeffrey Zients, with putting it under one company, maybe things are on track?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I think…


JUDY WOODRUFF: Is that what I hear you saying?

MARK SHIELDS: I think they have established themselves the window. Jeff Zients says and others that it has to be done by Thanksgiving, essentially. If it isn’t moving — if it isn’t moving then, if these glitches, wrinkles, whatever you want to call them, aren’t ironed out at that point, they have got real problems.

DAVID BROOKS: I would just say, of the 10 things we were all worried about with the implementation, the Web site wasn’t in the top 10. There are much bigger issues still to come.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, another big headache for the administration in — just in the last few days, these revelations, David, that the NSA is spying on our allies, our friends in Europe, all the way up to heads of state, Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, President Hollande of France, how much damage has been done by this?

DAVID BROOKS: I think a lot.

I’m offended by it. I was offended when they were spying on reporters. And then now they are spying on Angela Merkel? I mean, who are these people? Is there no sense of prudence, of what possibly we can learn from this? Is there no sense of respecting the privacy, some instinctual respect for the privacy of someone you need and trust?

I’m trying — I’m just wondering where these people’s heads are at. If you are going to run a government, you have to have a passion. You have to have a passion to protect the country, but you have to have some sense of proportion, some sense of prudence. And I haven’t seen that in our national security apparatus all over the summer.

One thing after another, where they seem to put — we’re going to invade anybody’s privacy. We place no value on that. And no one apparently thought about what happens if this goes public. Whose trust are we burning her? How do we create a community without trust? So I’m moderately offended by all this.


MARK SHIELDS: I am. David — David is right.

First of all, is there a more important ally than West Germany? Is there a more important ally than Chancellor Merkel? And so the idea of listening in on her cell phone, is that the kind of thing we did it because we could do it? I mean, did anybody ask, should we do it, is it the right thing to do? How is it going to be for her when this is revealed we’re doing it, in a country where she — she grew up, with Stasi listening in on everybody’s conversation? What is it going to do for her relations with the United States, the charge that she has been too complicit with the United States and not independent enough?

I just think it’s — there is something — the technology is so fascinating, it kind of takes over and it leaves prudential judgments way in the dust.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Is the excuse though that from the administration that they are just sweeping — we heard the discussion earlier with Ray that they are just sweeping everything up, and in so doing they catch up even the chancellor’s phone calls.

DAVID BROOKS: Still, if you were Barack Obama, would you want them to do that to you?

There’s some basic respect for privacy. And again a community and an alliance is built on trust. And they have to think, well, they wouldn’t do it to me because I’m their friend. And if they don’t think that, well, then what kind of community and what kind of alliance do we have?

I should point out that the two top stories we’re talking about are both heavily tech-related, and how the technological revolution is…



DAVID BROOKS: … both changing government and changing who has to think about government.

And one of the things David Cameron has done, he has taken tech people, at least one tech person, put him at the very top of government, in the cabinet level, just to reflect on all these issues that come across various departments.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But the repercussions are more than technical, aren’t they, Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: They really are.

And I just hope that it leads to some introspection and some question of just what we are doing. And, you know, there’s an old line here that Ben Bradlee, the former director of The Washington Post, said, is, if you want to do something, if you want to, just imagine it on the front page of The Washington Post tomorrow morning before you do it.

And, I mean, just — just think how it is. I mean, why did Chancellor Merkel call? Because Der Spiegel had run the item that she was being tapped, I mean, in her own country.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, last couple of minutes, crass politics, David. In the aftermath of the shutdown and the whole — the showdown over the debt ceiling, a lot of soul-searching on the part of Republicans.

We have had a couple conversations here on the “NewsHour” this week about it. Is there some rethinking on the part of Republicans about who they are, where they’re headed, what they believe? Or is this — are we just in a pause, and then we go back to business as usual?

DAVID BROOKS: I generally think there is rethinking.

I think it’s on two levels, first the donor base. I think some of the donors in the business community especially are finally getting organized to create a counterforce to counter the Tea Party and the Ted Cruz movement.

And, then, secondly on the presidential level, this is quickly going to turn into a presidential debate, with Chris Christie on one side, Ted Cruz and Rand Paul more or less on the other, maybe Rubio thrown in there. And so very quickly, this debate will turn into a presidential debate between the two wings of the party. And it will look a little like the Reagan-Rockefeller — I don’t want to overstress that.

But there will be two distinct wings to the Republican Party who will really be going head to toe in the presidential primaries.

MARK SHIELDS: I think that the chances — you mentioned 2016 — what we have been through with the rollout, and the health care plan, and as well as the NSA, I think it heightens the chance that there will be — a governor will make the better claim, someone who has run something, that President Obama was an inspiring leader, but it just — they didn’t run things well. I want somebody who is going to run things.

And I would say this, Judy, countering David’s point, which I think is a valid point. Republicans have lost five of the last six popular elections at presidential level. They have had one major victory in the past 25 years. That was 2010. They won 63 House seats.

And they — Republicans argue, well, look, we nominated the guy from the blue state, Mitt Romney, and we lost. We nominated John McCain, Mr. Bipartisan, who worked with collegially with Democrats across the aisle, and we lost. When we were unapologetically conservative in 2010, we won. Now that’s we ought to do in 2016.

The problem is, in 2010, when the Republicans won, 87 million people voted — in a presidential election, 129 million people.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you didn’t have a presidential candidate.


MARK SHIELDS: Of those — of those 42 million people who voted in 2012 who didn’t vote in 2010, 18 million of them were African-American, Latino or Asian, and eight million of them were voters between the ages of 18 and 29.

The Republicans have to figure out a way — unless they are going to keep 40 million people home every presidential election year, they have got to figure out a way to talk to the concerns, the hopes, the ambitions of people who are not white, not old, and not Republican. That’s their only hope.

DAVID BROOKS: And I would regard the last year or two as wasted in an effort to try to do…


DAVID BROOKS: Well, they have been so focused on opposing Obama, they haven’t really been for much. And who are you serving? Who are they serving?

They’re against Obama. OK, I got that. What are they doing for you? What are they doing for you? What are they doing for you? And I still don’t know the answer to that question.

MARK SHIELDS: Just on health care, it is repeal and replace. Where is the replacement? All we have heard is the repeal. I have no idea what the Republican health care plan is.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, we have no plan to repeal or replace either one of you.

Mark Shields, David Brooks, thank you.