JEFFREY BROWN: And now we return to politics with the analysis of Shields and Brooks, syndicated columnist Mark Shields, New York Times columnist David Brooks.
Now, a compromise on the birth control health care mandate. Last week, you both decried the administration's stance on this. We heard from a lot of viewers, by the way, who disagreed with both of you. Put aside the debate, the original debate.
Mark, where are we today? What's happening?
MARK SHIELDS: I think we stepped back from the brink. I don't think there is any question about it.
I think those on both sides of the issue -- and there were a few, but they were not unimportant -- who craved and desired a religious war and an all-out fight, I think have been deprived of that.
JEFFREY BROWN: David?
DAVID BROOKS: Yes, I think the administration figured out they made a mistake. This is what they should have done a couple weeks ago. I think Mark and I made this point last week, which is there was a perfectly plausible way which is in existence already in a couple of states to cover the contraception and the other things that are covered by this, but still show respect and deference to the religious views of these Catholic institutions.
And that was always sitting out there. And they chose an absolutist view, which was an insult to a lot of people. And then they realized, okay, this was a political mistake. It was probably substantively unnecessary. And so they made this fudge. And it is a fudge. It's sort of a bit of an accounting gimmick.
It shoves the cost for covering the contraception on to the insurance companies, who presumably will pass it on to somebody in some way. Nonetheless, it's messy. It doesn't make a lot of sense logically, but it shows deference, it shows respect to the people who are out there every day in the neighborhoods doing the work of serving the poor and the needy.
JEFFREY BROWN: At the same time, Mark, we heard the president earlier in the program say that he could claim to hold on to the principle, the key principle of full contraceptive care for all.
MARK SHIELDS: Yes. I mean that was, the president made that case today, that he has been consistent.
But there's no question. David is absolutely right. There was a firestorm of protest. And it wasn't just Catholics. It was, I mean, Rick Warren, the pastor at Saddleback Church, bestselling author, who gave the invocation at President Obama's inaugural. I mean, he stood on this issue and said he was 100 percent. And it became one of religious liberty.
As long as you were arguing, Jeffrey, about whether a woman has the right to contraception and that ought to be unfettered, that side carried the issue. But when it became a debate, which it ultimately did, about religious freedom and a rather cramped definition of what a religion can do or should do -- namely, as long as it just took care its own parishioners and did "religious" -- quote -- work, rather than, as David was talking, feeding the poor, sheltering the homeless, and taking care of the lonely, the idea that that wasn't religious, I think, really became a problem.
And where it was reflected was when you've got Tim Kaine -- nobody was more important to Barack Obama.
JEFFREY BROWN: A Virginian.
MARK SHIELDS: Former governor of Virginia, then governor of Virginia, an early supporter, strong supporter, and a close personal friend, and a man of unchallenged character, and he is running in the United States Senate race in Virginia this year.
And he broke and criticized the administration on it and said that this was a violation of religious freedom. Bob Casey, the senator from Pennsylvania, who was an early and strong supporter for Barack Obama against Hillary Clinton in Pennsylvania, where she was strong, he did the same thing, another important state.
I mean, so it became both philosophical and political.
JEFFREY BROWN: But you said we stepped back from the brink.
JEFFREY BROWN: The question is, does this go forward? Does this kind of an -- this issue or this kind of issue carry forward?
DAVID BROOKS: In some respects.
I think a lot of the religious angle will begin to simmer down. I think there will be some people who fight it, but most people, if you look at some of the statements from the Catholic organizations -- these are some Republican senators -- their statements were much more, okay, it's a small step forward.
Where it doesn't die down -- and this -- again, it's not the religious angle. It is the Obamacare. It's the Obama health care angle. It is why -- this plan gives the government a lot more intrusive role into a lot of institutions. So, even in this solution, in this compromise, they're imposing themselves on insurance companies and saying, you will do this, the government telling a private company what they must do.
And so this turns in -- turns back into really an Obama health care plan, which is the debate we've been having for a couple of years, about how intrusive do we want the government to be in telling people and mandating this and that and this and that.
JEFFREY BROWN: All right. In the meantime, on the campaign trail, Rick Santorum had a very big night a few days ago, right? Three victories, three states. How did he do it? How important was it?
MARK SHIELDS: Well, he did it as he's done it. He's been a consistent candidate. He's been relentless in his positions.
We talk about both Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich being good in their debate performance. He's been consistent and he's been good in his debate performances. And, in addition, he was willing to spend the time of retail politicking, that is, going in and personally campaigning in states that have caucuses. And this is not unimportant.
But do not overlook what this -- this firestorm we were just discussing did to him. I mean two, three weeks ago . . .
JEFFREY BROWN: You think there's a connection?
MARK SHIELDS: Three weeks ago, the political dialogue in the country was income inequality, the economy. Obama is on the offensive. Republicans are divided about extension of the middle-class tax cut.
And what happens in the meanwhile? This issue comes front and fore, a question of life, of religious freedom, of the government overreaching and social and cultural issues replaced. Who has been the tribune of the social and cultural and religious issues? Rick Santorum. It changed the debate.
You could say the Obama people were just incredibly clever, because they dealt a serious blow to Mitt Romney by putting the turf or the . . .
JEFFREY BROWN: That's a new spin on it.
MARK SHIELDS: It is a new spin.
DAVID BROOKS: They got Planned Parenthood involved. They got the court on gay marriage.
DAVID BROOKS: We will call it a big conspiracy.
MARK SHIELDS: I just -- I really do think it was quite an achievement.
JEFFREY BROWN: But do you buy that as the reason, one of the big reasons behind Santorum's...
DAVID BROOKS: Yeah. I don't think it was the sole reason, but it had to contribute. It just elevated his issues. It energized a lot of people.
And the second thing is that Mitt Romney is not so great. And it's his weakness, I think, as much as Rick Santorum's strength, that explains what happened, especially in a state lake Colorado, where he did have a history and did compete.
And the core problem to me is not, is he conservative, are his policies conservative enough? It's not a policy problem, because their policies are all essentially similar. But it's a personal problem. People know that, if Rick Santorum, if he -- if he was not running for president, he was in a room and you asked him about his positions, he would say exactly what he is saying. People do not believe that about Mitt Romney.
JEFFREY BROWN: So you are saying this is more of an anti-Romney . . .
DAVID BROOKS: I think it's significantly and maybe -- probably mostly an anti-Romney thing.
DAVID BROOKS: So it's a sign of his weakness that people don't know where he comes from. He doesn't talk about his past. And I think he should break the Mormon taboo and talk about it. Talk about his past. Talk about his family past.
I think he needs to tell the country -- and he sells himself as the turnaround artist. Well, what does that mean to most people? What community is he from. What business -- what industry does he really know? It sounds like he's sort of a free agent floating out there.
So people don't know where this guy comes from. And he really hasn't filled people in because he wants to be reticent about his own personal past. And I think that is a core problem that he has to address.
MARK SHIELDS: We have two core problems.
I mean I think Romney's problem was best captured by Tom Toles, the cartoonist of The Washington Post, in which Mitt Romney is sitting in an elephant's lap, and the elephant is dressed in a Santa Claus suit. And he says to him, "What do you want me to ask for?"
MARK SHIELDS: I mean, that's really what it is like.
I mean you're dying for Mitt Romney to come in and tell any audience what it doesn't want to hear, I mean, just once. I mean, I don't care who it is. I mean, but just go in and say, no, I am not going to be able to do that for you because I will tell you why. I think there is a larger national interest.
And I think that is a real problem. He went to CPAC today. And . . .
JEFFREY BROWN: There was the audience today, right, a very conservative audience.
MARK SHIELDS: There was no emotional connection.
And it was -- he was -- you know, the words were there, but the music was missing, or whatever, however you want to phrase it. It just isn't convincing. And I don't know if you let Romney be Romney, whatever it is, but they -- he's won, he crushed Newt Gingrich by negative commercials.
Now they're saying, the Romney campaign, we have more money. We've got more offices. We have got more people in our campaign staff and we will go after Rick Santorum.
And it makes you want to reach for the Listerine or the Scope, because it leaves a bad taste in your mouth. He's got to make the case on why he wants to be president, not why his opponents shouldn't be.
JEFFREY BROWN: At that CPAC meeting, of course, all three of them were there, all trying to claim the mantle, right, of most conservative.
DAVID BROOKS: Right. And Santorum at this point is probably the most dear to the heart of people in that room. It is a pretty conservative group.
The odd thing about Romney is they know all the problems. They have got a slogan in the Boston campaign headquarters: You've got to be willing to lose in order to win.
And that's absolutely true of politics. You have to believe in something deeper before people will trust you. And yet that hasn't been manifested. And the thing to look ahead, if we are looking ahead, is the Michigan primary I think in two weeks or so, because that is a state where he has nominal family roots, obviously. And yet Santorum is not so far behind.
And I suspect that is where Santorum is going to contest. And right now, you still have to consider Romney the frontrunner, though it is true that Santorum has won four primaries and he has only won two. But if he doesn't win the Michigan, then I think the party becomes really hysterical.
JEFFREY BROWN: Well, what is your sense of the conservative voters? At a meeting like this one, where there are very strong conservatives, they're listening for all three. What are they looking for and what are they waiting for?
DAVID BROOKS: They're looking for conviction.
The idea is, you are going to go to Washington, a place they distrust. There are going to be all these forces against you telling you not do what you promised to do. Do you have the internal mettle to do it anyway? And they trust that about Rick Santorum. I'm not sure they trust it about Romney, which is not to say his positions aren't right. It is a question, do you have the inner steel?
JEFFREY BROWN: You were there today. So what is your sense?
MARK SHIELDS: No, I just sense that there isn't an emotional connection.
It reminds me of a focus group that Peter Hart, the respected Democratic pollster, did of 12 voters about President Obama. And they asked, what is his spine made of? And the first person said steel, metal. Then it was plastic and wood and bamboo. And, you know, I think that is really a question that people ask about their president. It is a question that people are asking after going through this most recent experience with the president.
But I think it's one that -- with Romney, it is just central to his public identity. Who is he? What does he stand for? What is he willing to give up to lose? What is he willing to risk to lose? And that's -- I mean, at some point, addition does develop by subtraction, that you are willing to write off either some constituency just because of conviction.
And I think that is the question about him. Is he a conviction politician in a group, CPAC, particularly, who are conviction political activists?
JEFFREY BROWN: And you -- just briefly, in our 30 seconds here, back to the president in all this, he's trying to hope that the conversation switches back to the economy . . .
DAVID BROOKS: Right. And he's . . .
JEFFREY BROWN: . . . which is funny after all the talk we've had about the bad economy for a long time.
DAVID BROOKS: Yes. And he's, by the way, doing quite well in the polls. There is a poll out, which I think is probably an outlier poll, which had him beating Romney by 10 points. That can't possibly be.
But, nonetheless, yes, there is no question he has had a good period. And if he got Rick Santorum to run again against him, he'd be extremely happy.
JEFFREY BROWN: All right, David Brooks, Mark Shields, thanks a lot.
MARK SHIELDS: Thank you, Jeff.