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Shields and Brooks on waning ACA confidence and its impact on liberal government

November 15, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks join Judy Woodruff to analyze the week's top political news, including how the challenges of enacting the Affordable Care Act may wreak political havoc for the Obama administration and future liberal agendas.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: And to the analysis of Shields and Brooks.

That’s syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks.

Welcome to the program, gentlemen.

So, Mark and David, a tough week for the president, culminating in this vote today in the House, 39 Democrats crossing over to vote with Republicans.

Why — what happened? Why is this happening?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, there’s a slide.

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I have always thought Obamacare wouldn’t be repealed and it will essentially go into effect more or less as an enacted. But now, this week, you have to begin to have some doubts. And I say that for a couple reasons. First, on just substance grounds, the reversal on the insurance on the people who had their insurance policies canceled, that’s going to do a little, as we said earlier on the program, to make it more likely that the young people do not get involved in the exchange and do not end up subsidizing, so you get a sicker, older pool of people there.

Rates rise, and then you get into this problem where nobody wants to get in because the rates become so high and they end up paying the penalty. So, I think you have got a substantive problem there, which they need those younger people in, or else it just doesn’t work. And then the second thing is political.

The administration is now on its back heels. And they’re on the back heels on the easy stuff. The stuff up front was the easy stuff. And when the hard challenges come at later enactment dates, when those hit, they will have — people will have no spirit to defend them. And so if we’re seeing people peeling off right now, I think when the hard challenges come, there’s much more political peril for the White House.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Mark, the president had made this concession yesterday, saying — he’s backtracking, saying he was willing to let these insurance companies continue to sign — to sponsor people who already had policies. But that didn’t turn out to be enough.

MARK SHIELDS: Well, it did, Judy.

I mean, there were really speculation and realistic expectation that as many as 100 Democrats would desert, but the president yesterday, in his rather uncharacteristically subdued press conference, he was almost glum, it seemed, but that was directed at the House and the Congress in particular.

And the fact that they held it to 39 was seen as somewhat of a victory. But there’s no question that there was despair and discouragement in the ranks of Democrats. The president’s own job rating has fallen below 40 in several polls. And when a president’s job rating is below 40 in midterm congressional elections, the average number of seats lost by that president’s party is three dozen.

So that has led to some consternation and anxiety. Democrats just a few weeks ago were bullish about 2014 and the prospects of winning back the House even and upsetting history.

JUDY WOODRUFF: After the government shutdown.

MARK SHIELDS: After the government shutdown, the Republican brand, and we have got 9 percent approval of the Congress, which is essentially the Republican brand in the Congress.

John McCain said, when you’re down to 9 percent, you’re talking about blood relatives and staff members, and that’s it. But when you’re — right now, in the most recent survey, the president actually was seen as less able than the Republicans in Congress on handling health care. So there’s a real nervousness.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, it is just politics that caused the president to issue this apology, mea culpa. Mark describes him as glum and down.

DAVID BROOKS: Well, he’s unpopular.

It turns out if you sell a health care plan on the basis that we won’t increase the debt and nobody will be a loser, then, when there are losers, they get really mad. And there were bound to be losers. And so that’s part of it.

But part of it is just the weakening of the law, the weakening of support for the law, and the weakening of the own president’s authority to say, trust me, trust me. I’m really struck by the downward slide that he’s doing.

I’m a little surprised by it, frankly. And what’s interesting is, compared to Reagan and Clinton in their second terms, had very similar popular approval ratings, which were going up at this point. George W. Bush and Barack Obama have extremely similar downward slopes. Bush’s went all the way through, caused by Iraq and Katrina, and, in Obama’s case, health care and other things.

And one of the things that strikes me is the country has changed, much more cynical, much more anti-Washington and, as a result of that, much less likely to come in a big collective effort to help some uninsured off, so much more skeptical of the law, and, second, when it is not implemented properly, much more punishing on the government. And so that makes it very fragile to me.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Should we be surprised, Mark? There are stories of people out there who are saying, I got coverage that I wouldn’t have otherwise gotten because of this new law.

We had an interview way woman this week who is far along in her cancer treatment. And she made no bones about it.

MARK SHIELDS: That’s right.

JUDY WOODRUFF: She said, if it weren’t for this law…

MARK SHIELDS: That’s exactly right.

JUDY WOODRUFF: … my coverage, my — my health care treatment wouldn’t be covered. But that’s not making a difference, or is it?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, it’s — I think there are two points here, Judy, that make it beyond politics.

The first is that the administration made the decision to sell it on the basis of this is — everybody’s a winner, it really was ouchless and painless, instead of making the counterargument, which was the natural argument, that, look, we are hurting as a people when 38 million people are not covered.

It means that they end up in emergency rooms getting emergency coverage, which is terribly expensive, which the rest of us pay for, and they’re not healthy, and this is not the way a civilized society does it. It would be in our economic interest, it would be in our justice interest as a society. And we’re going to ask everybody to pitch in a little, and it’s going to be in your long-term interest to do so.

That wasn’t the case made. And what has happened…

JUDY WOODRUFF: But why wasn’t it?

MARK SHIELDS: Why wasn’t it? Because they decided, obviously, to sell it the other way. It’s not going — it’s going to be painless, maybe in part because of what David suggested, a skepticism that people were willing to accept such a sacrifice, even though limited though it was.

The other thing is, let’s be very blunt about it. The president said time and again that nobody is going to lose his insurance or her insurance if they like it. And so, driven to one of two conclusions, that is — wasn’t a true statement. And you’re driven to one of two conclusions.

Either the president was almost — almost negligently uncurious in not asking about what the answer was, or he made the choice to trade his considerable reputation and record of integrity for short-term political gain. That’s why they had to come and that’s why there was such consternation in the ranks.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How do you explain it, David, what happened, with the president acknowledging yesterday that he wasn’t on top of it?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, I think it is politics.

They knew that they — getting this thing passed — we were there — it was hard. And so they were pulling out every political stop in the book. And a lot of those political stops have made it harder now. The first early one was, they were really late in issuing the regulations because they didn’t want them to come out during the campaign so Romney could attack them.

As a result, the whole implementation got pushed back, and that’s part of the reason the Web site is such a mess. And then they made this political calculation. Then they made the — that they weren’t going to tell you there will be losers here. And they made the political calculation there would be no deficit effects. They made a whole series of political calculations.

And, frankly, it hasn’t stopped. What the president said this week was a political gesture. He backtracked substantively. It was a pseudo-backtrack, because the state commissioner is not going to go along, because the insurance companies are not going to go along. So, I like the apology. I like the honesty of it. But you have got to have an honest non-political policy to go with it.

And, to me, he’s still playing little political games there just to try to get a fewer defections in the House, rather than really coming full out and saying, OK, let’s try to fix this.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, that’s my question. What could they be saying? What could he be doing and saying at this point to get beyond this?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, in a personal sense, I think the president has to be more resolute.

I mean, it has to be, this is on my watch. In a strange way, all the retrospectives about John Kennedy come back to haunt him at this point. Kennedy at the time of Bay of Pigs came out and said, this is mine. This is my responsibility. I take the blame for it. Success has many fathers. Failure is an orphan. This is mine.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, he said that yesterday. But you’re saying he didn’t.

MARK SHIELDS: No, he didn’t. No, he didn’t. He really didn’t.

He said, my team. We fumbled.

JUDY WOODRUFF: That’s right. That’s right.

MARK SHIELDS: It wasn’t — it wasn’t, this is mine and I’m going to make sure that it never happens again. I mean, this has got to work.

Judy, this is beyond the Obama administration. If this goes down, if the Obama — if health care, the Affordable Care Act is deemed a failure, this is the end — I really mean it — of liberal government, in the sense of any sense that government as an instrument of social justice, an engine of economic progress, which is what divides Democrats from Republicans — that’s what Democrats believe.

And that’s what Democrats believe. Time and again, social programs have made the difference in this country. The public confidence in that will be so depleted, so diminished, that I really think the change — the equation of American politics changes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Is your view that dire?

DAVID BROOKS: I agree with that.

I think it’s — I don’t know if it’s permanent, but it will be a severe blow to the idea of expanded liberal governments. My big thought is, are we no longer the kind of country in which you can pass this sort of thing? And by that, I mean, when you were passing the New Deal or the Great Society, there were winners and losers.

But the losers felt part of a larger collective and they said, OK, I’m going to take a hit for the team. We may no longer have that sense of being part of a larger collective, so when you’re a loser, you just say, I’m a loser. And, as a result, you’re just not willing to be part of the group.

And the penalty for being part of the loser just makes you want to hit whoever made you the loser.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you’re saying that that just doesn’t…

DAVID BROOKS: Well, we have lower social trust, lower faith in the institutions, lower sense of collectivity.

And those are deep social trends that have been building for decades, but it just makes it much harder to sustain this kind of big legislation.

MARK SHIELDS: The we-ness of our society, the we, that we’re all in it together, has really been diminished.

Now, the one thing that could save the Democrats, having given that apocalyptic assessment, is the Republicans. I mean, nobody in his right mind or her right mind looks at a hearing, a statement, an investigation, a press release given by any Republican and comes to the conclusion that they’re really interested in covering people who aren’t covered.

They are rooting for failure. I mean, it’s so transparent, and so obvious, whether it’s Darrell Issa, whether it’s Reince Priebus, the chairman. They’re just cheering for failure. There’s not a sense of what we can do to make this work, or this isn’t going to work, but we’re going to come up with something better. There just isn’t.

DAVID BROOKS: We’re sort of not in the business of covering politics anymore. We’re in the business of covering this mutual masochism race, where one side stabs themselves in the arm and then the other side stabs themselves in the arm. Whoever does it last loses the election.

JUDY WOODRUFF: That’s gruesome.

But do you agree with Mark’s point that the Republicans have the ability to — I mean, that, thanks to the Republicans, this may not be the end of what the Democrats believe in?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I do think the Republicans should come up with an alternative. And a lot of the policy people in the Republican Party have tried to suggest them.

But if you’re running for Senate in North Carolina this time or whatever House, marginal House race, if you’re a Republican, you don’t need an alternative right now. You can just say you’re against it, and you will be fine.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, less than a minute, quick prediction, sense of it, immigration reform.

House Speaker John Boehner, Mark, said this week he — the House will not take up the Senate-passed legislation. What does it mean? Is immigration on life support? Could it live? What? What do you see?

MARK SHIELDS: I guess it could come back, Judy.

You have the American business community. You have religious leaders, civil rights leaders, Democrats and Republicans, large majorities all in favor of immigration reform. And the speaker has said no. And, apparently, he sees no political cost or calculus involved.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. He’s avoided a short-term blowup to his speakership, because he won’t have a fight, but his party has a long-term problem on this issue.

MARK SHIELDS: Right.

DAVID BROOKS: And unless he takes it up, that long-term problem will remain.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, well, there is nothing of a problem about Mark and David.

We thank you very much for being with us. Thank you both.