TOPICS > Politics

Shields and Brooks on debt limit drama, addressing economic inequality

February 14, 2014 at 6:41 PM EDT
Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks join Judy Woodruff to discuss the politics behind the debt limit increase, the outlook for legislation on fighting poverty and new enrollment numbers for the Affordable Care Act.

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.

And it’s Valentine’s Day. And, by the way, pink tie, tie with hearts, very nice.

DAVID BROOKS: Mark overdid it a little.



DAVID BROOKS: So, because it’s Valentine’s Day, let’s start by talking about the debt limit.


MARK SHIELDS: Nice segue.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Good segue.

We watched this drama play out this week, David, in Congress, which ended up in the Senate with Senator Ted Cruz of Texas essentially hanging some of his fellow Republicans out to dry. What was he trying to accomplish, and did he — did he do it?

DAVID BROOKS: Nothing says Valentine’s Day like Senator Ted Cruz, our national aphrodisiac.


DAVID BROOKS: What — what he was trying to do is — it’s unclear. There are a couple — the official explanation was that he wanted Republicans to fight. He thinks there’s a spending problem in the country, and Republicans should fight harder before raising the debt ceiling, and they should get some spending reforms. That’s the nominal explanation.

The effective explanation, he was going to force a lot of Republican senators, including Mitch McConnell, that are up, to force — to make them cast an unpleasant vote, which is going to help make it harder for them in the primaries against a more rightward challenger. And so he put a lot of people in a tough bind.

And the basic problem have been here before. They’re not all insane. They saw how badly it went last time, and they made a completely rational strategic decision, let’s just let it go and let’s move on and talk about something else. And that’s called basic strategy, nursery school-style.

And yet, somehow, there are some in the party who think strategy is bad. They just want to run into the wall again and again and again. And I would put Ted Cruz in that category.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Is it working for him, Mark?

MARK SHIELDS: We will find out, Judy two years from right about now, because if Ted Cruz is going national, he has already carved out for himself a niche, which is that, I’m not the establishment Republican. You’re not going to get — we tried — we tried John McCain. He worked across the aisle. He was bipartisan, and he got 90 percent of Democrats voted against him.

And then we had blue state Mitt Romney, who had worked with Democrats in Massachusetts, and 93 percent of Democrats — there’s only one Republican who has gotten one out of four Democratic votes. That was Ronald Reagan. He was an ardent conservative. And I’m going to stand up against the establishment of both parties. I’m not like — I’m the anti-Washington candidate.

I think that’s what he’s casting himself as. I think David is absolutely right that what he’s done to his own party — the Democrats owned the debt ceiling. They were going to raise the debt ceiling all by themselves with nobody else’s votes. What he forced Republicans to do — and they had to — no — no Republican could be the 60th vote to cut off debate. So they had to get — round up seven more to cast an unpleasant vote.

And as Bob Dole used to say, wisely, we senators love to make tough speeches. We don’t like to cast tough votes.

And this was a tough vote that Ted Cruz forced them to cast.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So where does this leave the — the Tea Party? I mean, and we should say, this comes on the heels of the House, where Speaker Boehner couldn’t, David, round up enough Republicans to get behind a plan that would counter the — the Democrats wanted a clean extension of the debt limit with no strings attached.

The Republicans were looking for something, couldn’t get enough votes, but it never — it never came together. What does all this say about what is going on in that party?


I think the Tea Party is going to be a permanent feature of the party. Those people were always here before we called them the Tea Party. And there’s two features. One, they’re — like a lot of Republicans, they think that we’re spending too much money. Two — and this is more a matter of strategy — they just don’t believe in it. They don’t believe in strategy.

They think simplicity, just whatever Washington is doing, just mess it up, and so a direct, full-bore, frontal assault approach again and again and again, whereas somebody like John Boehner says, well, you know, you pick your fights. I think — and so — but they’re against that sort of game playing, what I would call just intelligent strategy.

So, they are going to be a permanent part of the party. What is happening now is exasperation. What you’re seeing is beginning to see the Republican establishment, who have been terrified of the Tea Party, suddenly begin to say, we have got to stand up.

And so the most weirdly cowardly people on earth are the establishment. They hate to take on the renegades. And — but you’re beginning to see John Boehner leading the way, really, had a series of press conferences over the past couple of weeks or months really saying, you know, no, I’m not going to do it your way. I’m going to do it my way. This is the way I was taught to do politics. I will do it this way.

You’re beginning to see Bob Corker, a lot more senators coming out more forthrightly, certainly John McCain and people like that, and saying, no, we’re not going to do it that way. We’re going to do it the way that parties are supposed to do it, with strategy, with a little surrender here, be aggressive there, seize our opportunities, not just run into brick walls.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And what does that mean, though, Mark, for policy, for legislation, for addressing the country’s problems, when you have got one party that is so divided?


JUDY WOODRUFF: Not that the Democrats don’t have that.


I think, first of all, just to review the bidding, Judy, last month, we were celebrating the fact that they’d come to a budget agreement, the first time in three years, and they had budgeted. And then Patty Murray, the Democrat in the Senate, and Paul Ryan, the respect in the House, had reached this great agreement.

Congress voted on it, and it was sort of the step in the right direction. And those are the bills we agreed to pay up. And then up come the bills, and they say, no, no, we’re not going to pay them. We’re basically going to default. And John — John Boehner, to his credit, acted like a grownup. He wasn’t Nathan Hale. He wasn’t Patrick Henry, but in this — in this climate, he looked like it because it was good politics and it was good public policy.

He did the right thing for the country, and he did the right thing for his party. He really did it. He saved — he brought them back from a second self-destructive closing of the federal government, which cost the Republican Party enormously.

So, what does it mean going forward? I’m not sure. I mean, it’s a better climate. It was a victory for the president, you could say a victory for the Democrats, in the sense that they didn’t — they did get a clean bill.

But I don’t see it as a great compact or a great concord. I really don’t. I mean, I think immigration is where the president had his biggest hope, and I don’t think — see that any closer this week than it was last week.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, though, if I were the president, I would — I would do — I would hit — I would take advantage of this moment of division or rancor, whatever you want to call it, in the Republican Party, and I would have two big proposals that I would just talk about endlessly.

The first would be immigration, which does split the Republican Party, and I would just hit that every single day, because maybe you can create a governing majority. Maybe there is enough upset with the Tea Party to really do that.

And the second thing would be poverty. Marco Rubio, Paul Ryan, some of the people you have been talking to, they have stretched — stretched Republican orthodoxy a fair bit to allow for some government action to address poverty, some way — subsidies, some other things, increase the Earned Income Tax Credit. So there’s been some movement there.

And they differ with Democrats how to pay for it and that sort of thing. Nonetheless, there’s movement there. And I think there’s a potential for a governing compromise on some sort of poverty legislation, which, for the Democratic political advantage, would split the Republican Party, but would also yield possible legislation.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So you’re saying that mainstream Republicans could go along with something like that on immigration and on dealing with poverty, and just say goodbye — or say, Tea Party, too bad?

MARK SHIELDS: I don’t — I mean, David was a lot more bearish on immigration than he had been — than he is today.

I think Mitch — first of all, Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader, a May 20 primary, fighting for his political life in a tough general election, has already said that he — there will be no immigration this year. And John — John Boehner stated the principles and quickly got shot down, I mean, got pulled back to earth.

So I don’t know. The votes may be there. There might be 45, 50 votes. I haven’t seen them self-identifying and come up and say, we want to sign a discharge petition with the Democrats yet to bring immigration to the floor.

DAVID BROOKS: I was just saying, if I were the president, you have got two subjects here. Immigration, I agree with Mark. It’s extremely unlikely. But at least you have got a great issue, because it splits the Republicans. So, that’s a political win.

And on poverty, I think there’s a chance of a substantive win, if you have the right set of packages. And it’s a subject much on people’s minds. And Republicans have a hankering to show that they do have a poverty policy.

MARK SHIELDS: If you want to split the Republicans, I mean, the Republicans are on the short side in popular support on minimum wage, which 70 percent of people want raised, for equal pay for women for equal jobs. They’re on the wrong side of that.

I mean, so, I would — if you’re going to just talk about taking advantage of Republican weakness and Republicans defensively, I would emphasize those two.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And the Republicans we have interviewed this week, Marco Rubio and Senator Tim Scott, both adamantly against the minimum wage.

Let’s talk for just a minute about the health care law. There were some good numbers, David, that came out. The administration announced 3.3 million, I think, people have now signed up on these exchanges. On the other hand, the administration announced that it was going to extend the deadline for medium businesses to bring their employees under — under health care coverage.

Is this — does this mean the health care law is healthier, or does it mean it’s weaker? I mean, how do we read what’s going on?

DAVID BROOKS: It’s both. It’s both.

So, if you want to draw a straight line through a lot of the different stories that have been going through on health care reform, I think you would say one thing. The health care law is probably going to reduce the number of uninsured. Not probably — it will reduce the number of uninsured.

And the good enrollment numbers are a piece of that. The second thing that could be said down on the downside is that costs will probably be a lot higher than estimated. And so what you’re seeing is the exchanges are not competitive. A lot of places, there’s just only one person in the exchange, one company, a Blue Cross or something, in the exchange, so there’s no competition over price. And, therefore, it’s just a lot more expensive to get the policies.

Also, there are probably — I think they’re going to have no mandates. We had this big fight, individual mandates for the companies, and all this other stuff on mandates. They’re really walking back every mandate.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Including the individual mandate?

DAVID BROOKS: I think — I personally — and this is just conjecture — I think they’re going to have trouble getting mandates, period, and that will raise costs because you won’t be able to subsidize…

MARK SHIELDS: Without the individual mandate, there is none.

I agree with David on the walking back. But, Judy, it was projected seven million by the 31st of March. Now the Congressional Budget Office says six million, which is not as good as Democrats had hoped for or the architects had hoped for, a lot better than Republicans had hoped for.

I mean, the Republicans — Republicans have based their 2014 campaign on Obamacare. I think the whole test is going to be, in July, August of the summer, are people looking at it and say, gee, this has worked for my nephew, this has worked for my daughter, this is better. My neighbor’s life is better off. It’s going to be really a pragmatic, practical test of whether it’s working.

It’s not going to be ideological left or ideological right.

JUDY WOODRUFF: That’s my question. Is it a winning issue for Republicans to keep hammering away at health care?

DAVID BROOKS: So far, it has been a winning issue. If you have looked at the polls, it’s still an unpopular thing. It’s been a winning issue, especially in red states where a lot of Senate Democrats are up for reelection.

But Mark is right. It could turn around. And we both could be right, that people see, oh, yes, so and so, my friend got coverage, my bartender got coverage, my barber got coverage. But the costs over the long haul could prove to be extremely expensive. And so both those things are — there are a lot of extremely unaffordable programs that are quite popular.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, we wish both of you happy Valentine’s Day.

MARK SHIELDS: Thank you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And we hope it hasn’t been too expensive for the two of you.


JUDY WOODRUFF: David Brooks…

DAVID BROOKS: Excellent point.


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