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Shields and Brooks on the flagging labor force, foreign policy fights

May 2, 2014 at 6:41 PM EDT
Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks join Judy Woodruff to discuss the week’s news, including a mixed-bag jobs report boasting the lowest unemployment rate in five years, upcoming midterm primaries and critiques for President Obama’s foreign policy standing.

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

Welcome, gentlemen.

So, let’s go back to the lead story tonight, Mark, and that’s the jobs report — good news, 288,000 jobs created in April. The unemployment rate is down. What does that add up to, and does it make a difference politically somehow?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, first of all, it’s the 50th straight month of job creation, which is good news. There are 409,000 more jobs in the country than there were when this recession began. It took us the longest time to even return to that, some seven years, Judy.

And it’s good news. There were 36,000 more jobs added than were first reported in February and March. So, in that sense, it’s good news. But there are underlying, continuing problems. I mean, 35 percent of the unemployed people have been out of work for more than six months.

You have got the long — this is the highest percentage of long-term unemployed people in the history of recorded — record-keeping in this country. I mean, the last 75 years, it only reached 26 percent once, in the 1980s.

So this is a real problem. You had — the other dark figure is they had 800,000 people dropping out of the job market. And that has to be a concern. So, hold the champagne, but it is encouraging news.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, half-full, half-empty?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. Politically, it will take a couple of months like this and you can begin to feel some sense of confidence. And it would certainly help Democrats.

The right track — the right track/wrong track number would begin to move if they had a couple — we haven’t had a couple months like this. We have had a few blips like this one, but maybe we’re building some momentum, especially since this one was so broad-based.

Just as a policy matter, though, one of the things — Mark talks about the terrible drop in the labor force participation rate. I would love to see research into the psychological effects. I know it’s been out there. There’s a guy named Peck who did an “Atlantic Monthly” piece about a year.

And what happens psychologically to people who are so far out? Paul’s piece had a little of this. You have got a gap in your resume, so that’s an obvious thing. But then there are psychological effects, loss of self-confidence, loss of skills, loss of just getting up in the morning, just feelings of, what am I doing here, isolation.

So you have these devastating effects. How do we counteract those effects and what are the policy proposals to counteract those effects for what is now a pretty significant part of the population?

JUDY WOODRUFF: And — and Paul focused in — Solman — in his report, Mark, on inner-city and young people. But what the two of you are saying is that it’s pervasive throughout the economy.

MARK SHIELDS: Oh, it is, and that sense of isolation from being out of work for a long time.

Unfortunately, one of the first questions Americans ask each other when they meet is, what do you do? And when you don’t do something, it puts you immediately I think on the defensive and it does erode yourself self-confidence.

DAVID BROOKS: One other issue that feeds into this, in South Dakota, drugs, meth, prescription drugs. The people have nothing to do. The drugs are just growing, almost rampant out there, all around the country, and so, it all feeds into problems that are not just urban, but are just spread throughout the country.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, for any Democrats who are out there or for the White House hoping for some…

JUDY WOODRUFF: … news away from this, the midterm elections?

MARK SHIELDS: I think it’s good, Judy, in the sense that if you get two or three months like this in a row — there are essentially three factors that determine, in my judgment, what happens in a midterm election.

And it’s the president’s job rating, which in the latest Wall Street Journal-NBC poll this week was up from where it had been, not — he’s still at 44 percent approval, underwater. But David mentioned whether the country is headed in the right direction or off on the wrong track.


MARK SHIELDS: And it’s 27 percent right direction, 63 percent wrong track. Those are depressing numbers for an incumbent party.

And I really think that if you get two, three, four months in a row of good economic news, that could raise, start to change that number.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And I ask because we’re just — next Tuesday launches officially the primary season. We start to see primaries in a number of states across the country.

And right now, David, the conventional wisdom is Republicans hold on to the House and they have a decent shot at taking over the Senate.

DAVID BROOKS: A 50/50 shot at the Senate.

And for the primaries, the story is how many of the people we will respectfully call crackpots are going to get nominated.


DAVID BROOKS: You have the sort of establishment Republicans and — I will be a little more respectful — some of the more Tea Party candidates, some of the political newcomers who are challenging them.

And of course the story for the last couple of cycles has been that the establishment candidates have tended to lose. And you have some candidates who are unelectable win. And so how are those, the newcomers doing this time? And I think the general trend is they’re not doing as well, in part because the established candidates have moved right, defanged some of that.


DAVID BROOKS: Second, because some of — they are getting much better at exposing some of the political weaknesses of the neophytes.

They’re taking them very seriously. They’re attacking them for attending cockfighting fights or for being involved in scandals. And political newcomers make mistakes. And so there has been a lot more pressure on them.

So it’s generally looking like it’s going to be a better year for some of the Republican establishment candidates.


Democrats always hope that they will nominate the unelectable, the Christine O’Donnell in Delaware, the Richard Murdoch in Indiana, and to say nothing of the late, lamented Todd Akin in Missouri. Those were seats that — Sharron Angle in Nevada — those were seats that the Republicans should have won, could have won and would have won but for the flawed Republican nominees that made themselves the issue.

And that is the hope of the Democrats. The problem for the Democrats is they’re defending seats in states that President Obama didn’t carry. And so it’s not enough just to reenergize the Obama coalition. You have got to reenergize the Obama coalition in those states, plus add to it, while holding on to those loyal the president, which makes the political job a little more difficult.

The one saving grace, Judy, is the Republican brand is the worst it’s ever been. I mean, it’s really — in other words, people feel less fondly and positively towards the Republicans than at any time.

DAVID BROOKS: It’s sort of a mystery, that one, though, because the Republican brand is really terrible.


DAVID BROOKS: On the other hand, who do you want to control Congress, it’s at least even.

MARK SHIELDS: It’s even.

DAVID BROOKS: Maybe the Republicans have an advantage. So, we hate them, but we may want them.


JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, one of the other things the Democrats are worried about, you have to believe right now, is the administration, the president’s standing on foreign policy.

David, the president comes back from his trip to Asia greeted by yet another poll showing a lot of disapproval of his handling of the economy overall and other issues, but foreign policy, and criticism from everywhere. We were going to show the cover of the latest issue of “The Economist” magazine. “What Would America Fight For?”

The questions are coming from the right. They’re also coming from the left. Is this kind of criticism deserved on the part…

DAVID BROOKS: I think halfway.

I do think there’s a fraying of the international order. We have an order that the nation are basically sacred. National borders, you don’t invade them. We have an order that there’s free trade, free movement of people. There are sort of procedures that you organize international affairs about. And we have sort of taken that for granted in the post-war world and post-Cold War world.

And I do think it’s fragmenting. And when it’s fragmenting, some of the wolves out there are grabbing. And so Putin is grabbing Ukraine, grabbing Crimea. The Chinese are much more aggressive in the maritime waters. Iran is much more hegemonic in the Middle East.

And so you’re beginning to see the rise of regional powers. And we have not seen that. And the rise of regional powers would just be a disaster for us long-term. And so reestablishing and reasserting that international order is the job of the United States.

And has been Obama derelict about that? I would say, in some ways, he’s been non-effective. He let the red lines cross in Syria. He hasn’t imposed serious sanctions on Putin. But it’s a much broader problem. The Republicans have definitely not helped by refusing to ratify any treaty, including some of the IMF stuff. They have let the fabric go.

And then the American public wants to withdraw, wants to pull inside. So, the U.S. is playing a less assertive role. And that fabric of procedures is fraying. And that’s really bad.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And the president himself, Mark, held a news conference overseas in the last few days and talked about the criticism and said, what do they want me to do? You know, we have been in these wars and are they saying, we should do more? And they say no. Well, what should we do?


You saw the president’s traditional and classic cool pierced. He was upset, I think, and I think with some legitimacy, Judy. The fact is that we’re operating in a reality of the last decade of this country, in the sense that the majority of Americans believing that we were deceived and misled into war in Iraq, that whatever one calls our experiences in Afghanistan and Iraq, they will not be seen as successes.

And they are not viewed that way, and, at the same time, an American people who were essentially spared any involvement in that war, any of those wars, who have just really sort of soured on American involvement in the world.

I give the president credit, quite frankly, because he’s dealing in — not only in this situation, but the sanctions that David talks about are being opposed openly by many American companies right now, I mean, caterpillar and at others. Boeing is terrified — they have got 100 plane contracts — that Airbus could move in into Russia and take that, if, in fact, you didn’t have a coalition with all the European countries moving at the same time.

And I think that’s the only way sanctions are going to make a difference. I would say David’s portrayal of the world is a little dark. I think Putin is the real outlaw. I mean, there’s no question the Chinese on the islands and the Middle East is sui generis.

But as far as the rest of the world order, the 195 nations, Putin is sort of, I think, the real outlier.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, well, I guess I disagree with that.

I think some of the failure of the Japan trade deal, that’s part of a fraying. Some of the restrictions on the movement of people — we have sort of got a problem though of a death by 1,000 cuts, that there’s no individual case where we should get really exercised. Like, we’re not going to commit troops to Ukraine. We’re not going to do anything crazy about Iran.

We’re probably not going to declare any sort of moral war on China. So it’s all these discrete problems, none of which individually merits this gigantic response, but collectively they can really do some damage. And so that’s sort of the problem we’re in.

I agree with Mark about the hangover from Iraq and Afghanistan. But I think Obama is going to do this, give some speeches where he says, OK, that’s not my foreign policy, but I am going to have an assertive foreign policy.

MARK SHIELDS: And I would say, if there’s been a failure of the president, who is just a great public speaker, it’s been to spell out what America’s mission is and what our interests are.

But I really do think, Judy, that the reality is there is not the will to go to war in this country right now. And those people who talk about it are doing so recklessly.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We hear you both.

Mark Shields, David Brooks, thank you.