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Shields and Brooks on the health care law legacy, gifts for politicians

December 20, 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 news, including their predictions on how the health care law will be viewed in history, what America will remember about the 113th Congress and what holiday gifts they'd bestow to some of America's politicos.

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

Welcome, gentlemen.

We’re going to do our own version of brain training.

Talk about today’s news conference by the president. David, it’s been a rough year for the president. He was asked a lot of questions about what went wrong, especially when it came to health care. He acknowledged some problems, but he kept saying, I did the right thing.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. On health care, it’s going to be political. It’s going to be, let’s say, the confluence of the politics and the messy implementation.

So, what happened last night was, they announced this delay — or this delay in some of the — really wiping away some of the internal mandate, the individual mandates for people who have hardship exemptions. And that came about as a bit because of political pressure from Democrats.

And the thing to look forward to in the — really the months and years ahead — or especially the months ahead, as the midterms approach, is, are more Democrats pressing the president to sort of weaken the individual mandate further, further, further? And if it becomes politically unsustainable, for a lot of Senate Democrats in particular, then the individual mandate begins to look weaker, possibly goes away.

And if that goes away, then the health care law goes away. So, they don’t have a long time to implement the health care, because the political pressure may interrupt their effect to really implement the change and reform to make the thing work.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Mark, how much leeway does the president really have to change impressions about health care right now? And how much does his legacy hinge on all this?

MARK SHIELDS: It’s beyond packaging, and it’s beyond speeches, Judy. It’s now performance.

This going to be judged by how in the next year people’s lives are either improved, and they feel more secure and better, and their family members and friends and neighbors are better off because of this law, or they’re not. And I think that’s — that’s — we have moved beyond can we make another speech, can we do an event to really performance.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, they just stand back…




DAVID BROOKS: Yes, it’s sort of hard to know where it’s going to wind up. It’s either teething pains, in which case we will just get through this period and it will work in a little brief period, or it’s a dissolution of the whole thing.

And at this point, none of us can really know which is true. One of the thing that strikes me is, in an era of high distrust, high cynicism about Washington, the losers seem to be a lot more louder and more powerful than the winners. And so you could have a situation where you have more winners, but they’re a passive, less political power. The vocal minority of losers has much more political sway.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And that’s one of the things. I was talking about with Mary Agnes Carey of Kaiser Health News.


JUDY WOODRUFF: She was saying, there are a lot of people that may be having a good experience, but we’re not hearing from them.

MARK SHIELDS: Well, and no — but that’s got to be it.

I’m not as worried as David is about the dissolution. I mean, I am still hopeful and believe that it will work. But this is the whole ball game. This is the whole presidency. Everything else, Judy, you can — you know, you can talk about State of the Union address. You can talk about legislative initiatives, and we will.

But this is what the Obama presidency will hinge on, and history’s judgment of it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, the other big question he was asked about was the NSA government surveillance.

And it was interesting. His answer was framed the same way. He acknowledged there have been some problems. But he said, you know, we’re just trying to do the right thing for the American people and we’re prepared to make some tweaks, some adjustments as we go along.

And clearly they are going to announce, I guess, some adjustments in January to the program.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, and as they should.

You know, I’m a pretty big national security guy. But if you looked at the way the NSA has acted in some of the foreign surveillance, and some of the domestic, media, all this stuff, it’s hard not to be a little alarmed and it’s hard not to feel that there is some lack of self-restraint.

And so the tide of public opinion has clearly turned toward more restraint. And I think there is going to be broad majority support from that — from the right and the left, as long as it is done responsibly.

And so what this council report…

JUDY WOODRUFF: Broad support for?

DAVID BROOKS: For restraining the NSA, putting in some of the safeguards that the judicial decision, the Leon decision essentially sort of endorsed, but this group of advisers certainly endorsed. There’s going to be I think broad support of that. And the president clearly is sympathetically aligned toward it.

MARK SHIELDS: The very fact, Judy, that the recommendations of the panel were made public tells you, I think, the degree of concern and confession and admission on the part of the administration there is an alarm.

There has always been this question about why Americans weren’t concerned about privacy, but it’s almost become cumulative now. It’s both private and public. Anybody who signs on and looks up shoelace, and you’re going to be bombarded with shoelace ads for the next generation, in the sense that, through your phone, they know where you are and who we are, and I think there is a merger here almost of the private and the public.

And the NSA was unable to come up with a single example of a plot that had been thwarted by all of this data that — just this accumulation of it, and not that the phone companies, I think, are any more trustworthy. That is sort of a — when the phone companies are the default position, it tells you how much confidence has been lost in the NSA.



DAVID BROOKS: I sort of — personally, I am a little less worried when the government — when the private company has it than when the government, which really does have power of life or death over us, has it.



DAVID BROOKS: Somehow, that seems more problematic to me.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, just about the only I guess institution out there that is less — that has got worse approval ratings these days than the president is the Congress, Mark and David.

David, they’re now — they have left town. We think they’re all out of town. They finished the budget. But what is the legacy of this Congress? What are we going to remember the Congress of this session for?

DAVID BROOKS: Some really great accomplishments.


DAVID BROOKS: The government shutdown was one.

I would say the change in the filibuster rules was a disaster, and then the failure to pass immigration reform, which really has majority support. So I think that is three pretty big strikes. I think they have earned whatever their approval rating is, 1.2 or whatever it is at this point.


DAVID BROOKS: I think it’s been a pretty lamentable, lamentable Congress.

And that is partly because of Congress, partly because of the country, frankly, and partly because the president has not gathered a governing majority at any point in his presidency, some 60-vote majority that he can count on time and time again.

MARK SHIELDS: Judy, the — the reality of the Congress — and I give the president credit. He did accentuate the positive of the improved economic news at the beginning of the press conference today.

But the legacy of this Congress, in spite of the great summit with Patty Murray and Paul Ryan and accommodation and conciliation, we’re going to end up — as David Rogers, the Politico budget reporter pointed out, we’re going to end up with — and all of us know about economic inequality, and the need for research, the need for education, the need for all sorts of scientific — or the infrastructure efforts.

And we’re going to end up with an average spending $486 billion on all discretionary — domestic…

JUDY WOODRUFF: domestic.

MARK SHIELDS: … discretionary spending, that is that — not the defense and not that that goes to Social Security and Medicare.

In George W. Bush’s administration, we averaged $509 billion. That’s $23 billion less a year. So we’re cutting back at the very same time that Ben Bernanke tells us in his valedictory that we should be spending more. And so, the idea…

JUDY WOODRUFF: But that’s what Republicans want, isn’t it?

MARK SHIELDS: But, I mean, the idea that it’s happening, that the Democrats have accepted this, and this is going to be going forward, I really think it’s — this alarm has not been sounded. It takes a reporter to make the case, rather than a leader.

DAVID BROOKS: It’s not because we’re spending less money overall. It’s because it is going to entitlements.

It is the entitlement piece that is swallowing up the domestic discretionary piece, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Social Security, Medicare, yes.

MARK SHIELDS: But the figure — I was talking to David before the broadcast about this.

There were 196 million Americans in 1966. And there were — at that time, there were 2,721,000 Americans working for the federal government. Today, with 316 million Americans, there are 2,000 more. I mean, we have cut the number of federal employees.

I mean, it is not — it is not some behemoth. I mean, Rand Paul, for example, when he found this out was just rather amazed, I mean, because he had bought into the idea that this was — they were hiring and hiring and hiring and spending and spending.

I mean, that — that, I think, has to be a concern going forward about whether we’re going to have money for research and for education and for infrastructure.


JUDY WOODRUFF: But do you think the American people understand that, and, frankly, are focused on it and care about it?


I mean, I think that’s — no, the American people have an awful lot on their minds and what they are trying to deal with. But I think that is the responsibility of leadership to make that case. And I don’t think that case has been made.

DAVID BROOKS: Well, again, Milton Friedman used to say that government is becoming a check-writing machine, Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.

It’s money comes in, checks go out. It doesn’t take a lot of government workers to do that. And so when Medicare and Medicaid and Social Security and those programs begin to expand, everything else shrinks. And so it is a question of getting those two. And Friedman used to say, this is a libertarian paradise. When the entitlements take up 100 percent of the federal government, there is no money for anything else.

And that is more or less where we are headed.


It is almost Christmas. Whether you observe Christmas or not, it is the time of year when everybody thinks about giving gifts. So I have asked the two of you to think about what gifts would you like to give to some prominent Americans?

So, Mark, let’s start with President Obama. What would you give him?

MARK SHIELDS: President Obama needs a whirlpool.


MARK SHIELDS: He’s got a lot of bruises and bumps. He needs some — some personal time.


JUDY WOODRUFF: You don’t mean a washer and dryer set? You mean…


MARK SHIELDS: No, I mean just that hot tub that he can sit in and get — you know, get — get feeling better, maybe a couple Band-Aids even.

DAVID BROOKS: It is funny. We went in the same direction…



DAVID BROOKS: … because I wanted to give him one of those massage chairs you get at Brookstone, the vibrating things.


MARK SHIELDS: Oh, did you really?

DAVID BROOKS: He was going to do that in the press conference, sort of shaking around there.

MARK SHIELDS: He’s got more taste than that.


DAVID BROOKS: Those are pretty nice.


JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, what about Speaker Boehner, Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: Speaker Boehner needs to get rid of Jack Kingston, the congressman from Georgia who is running from the Senate, who said this week, Judy, in a major breakthrough of great conservative thinking, that children are — that their moral fiber is undermined by receiving free school lunches; therefore, they should fire the janitors in poor schools and let the children who are getting school lunches work as janitorial people.

You know, John Boehner doesn’t need those people. And he needs to get in touch with his feelings again, like he did last week.

JUDY WOODRUFF: I remember one of the Republican presidential candidates talking about that too at some point.


DAVID BROOKS: I’m getting him a life-size picture of Dean Martin, because I have had trouble telling the two apart, frankly.

MARK SHIELDS: That’s good. That’s good.

DAVID BROOKS: Same voice, same skin. He needs Jerry Lewis off on the side.


JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, let’s talk about…


JUDY WOODRUFF: You want to keep that up?


MARK SHIELDS: That’s good.

JUDY WOODRUFF: A couple of Republicans who may run for president next time around.

What about Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey?

MARK SHIELDS: Governor Chris Christie needs to receive and to listen to the C.D. of “Feliz Navidad,” because he — his position on immigration is a little sketchy.

And I think it’s time for him to work it out and be inspired.

DAVID BROOKS: I was just going to give him — I’m writing a book on humility. And I think he could use that one.



This is a good place to sell your book.

Ted Cruz, the senator, junior senator from Texas, Mark, what about him?

MARK SHIELDS: I think a camo outfit, so he could join the folks at “Duck Dynasty” and feel very comfortable with his core constituents.


JUDY WOODRUFF: And speaking of “Duck Dynasty,” I was going to ask the two — I will ask you about that in just a minute.

What about Ted Cruz?

DAVID BROOKS: I will — he can take the camo, but I would give him an hour with Pope Francis.




MARK SHIELDS: You’re into humility this year.




JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, somebody else who said I guess in an interview in the last few days that she’s going to decide this year whether she is running for president in 2016, Hillary Clinton.

Mark, what would you give Hillary Clinton?

MARK SHIELDS: I am into C.D.s this year. “Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow.”


MARK SHIELDS: I mean, it worked for Bill. You ought to just hum it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You want her to run?

MARK SHIELDS: Do I want her to run? I…

JUDY WOODRUFF: You’re not going to go on the record.


MARK SHIELDS: I have absolutely no interest in whether she does or doesn’t. I mean, that is solely up to her.

Anybody who runs for president, it is a personal decision. And I wouldn’t presume…



DAVID BROOKS: Yes. I’m picking C.D.s. I would give her “Grand Theft Auto,” something to play on the bus there.


JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, finally, what would the two of you to give to the American people, to the country.


MARK SHIELDS: Boy, just some sense of optimism and confidence about the future, which is — our supply of which has been sadly depleted.

DAVID BROOKS: He’s getting sentimental.

I was going to give us a break from ourselves. But, you know…

JUDY WOODRUFF: You don’t mean the three of us. You mean…

DAVID BROOKS: No, I mean all of us need a break from all 320 million of us.

MARK SHIELDS: Need a break from each other?

DAVID BROOKS: From ourselves.


DAVID BROOKS: No, if you want to feel good about the country, just go back to 1830. Tocqueville comes here.

He finds certain American values, dynamism, hard work, industry, moral materialism. They’re all still here. We’re still essentially Tocqueville’s country. And so I would give them — I would give them “Democracy in America” and remind us that we still essentially have the secret we have always had.

JUDY WOODRUFF: That is a good note to end on.


JUDY WOODRUFF: Mark Shields, David Brooks, merry Christmas. Happy holidays.

MARK SHIELDS: Merry Christmas, Judy.



MARK SHIELDS: Thank you very much. Thank you.