MILES O’BRIEN: In addition to the grueling work of rescue and recovery on the ground, Hurricane Harvey has stirred up political challenges and marked the first natural disaster on President Trump’s watch.
For what’s at stake, we get the analysis of Shields and Brooks. That’s syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks.
Gentlemen, good to have you with us.
To what extent has the storm on Friday and what has ensued changed what’s going to happen in Washington in September? Do you think this is a reset in a sense, David?
DAVID BROOKS, The New York Times: I have decided to take the most willfully confident or least optimistic point of view just maybe post-flood, that the dove comes bearing the olive branch.
And I do think there’s potential for things to get better. The Republicans were headed toward dysfunction this fall with the budget showdowns, with this fight over the wall, possible government shutdown.
And now they at least have a pretext, all the while knowing they look dysfunctional and they have to get something done. Now they have a pretext to change the subject, to put some budget relief in there for the flood, without doing offsets, without trying to rip the money out from other programs.
And they could say, hey, we can’t do the wall right now. We got to rebuild Texas. And, by the way, on the background, a lot of people are going to need a lot of construction workers in Texas. And this is a construction with a construction worker flourish.
So, maybe this isn’t the time to crack down on immigration. And so I think there’s a possibility, if they want to look functional, to seize this moment, whether they will or not. But I’m going for maximal optimistic unrealism.
MILES O’BRIEN: So, Mark, would you agree that the storm has given Republicans some cover for a kumbaya moment?
MARK SHIELDS, Syndicated Columnist: Not necessarily kumbaya moment, because I think that’s impossible with Donald Trump, because he’s so mercurial, so volatile and so self-obsessed.
But I think it’s great political opportunity for Republicans, partly for the reasons that David said. The old maxim in combat in World War II was, there are no atheists in a foxhole. There no libertarian, conservative, small-government people at a time when they’re in the wake of a hurricane.
People turn — what’s the government going to do? I want it done. Even the much ridiculed — and legitimately so — Ted Cruz, who ran for president proclaiming he was the most unpopular man in the Senate, earned that epithet, sobriquet by opposing any hurricane aid to the citizens of New York and New Jersey after Hurricane Sandy.
And 22 of the 23 Republican members of Congress from Texas, including John Cornyn, the senator and Cruz, opposed it. Now, of course, they are the biggest exhorters for federal aid, federal involvement, national government rushing in.
But I do think it’s an opportunity for Republicans to unite and to get away from the wall and president’s empty threat to close the government if it weren’t funded.
MILES O’BRIEN: I want to talk a little bit about what is going on in Washington in just a moment.
But let’s — a couple of things about the actual, the response on the ground. We didn’t have a Brownie moment this go-round, as we did in Katrina. Is your sense that, politically, the Trump administration did well in the way things happened on the ground as far as the immediate response in Texas and Louisiana, David?
DAVID BROOKS: Yes, I would say the range of government programs seemed to go well.
The people on this program and all the ones we have seen and interviewed, I think they have generally been impressive. They had tough calls to make, the mayor of Houston, on whether to evacuate or not. That was a tough call. You could argue it either way. The people seem to be responding.
To me, the two biggest things that happened was, first, Houston came together. And that is significant, because Houston is the most ethnically diverse city in this country. And there’s an argument that is sometimes made, oh, we will never have solidarity as a nation if we’re so ethnically diverse.
Well, Houston does it. And so if they can do it, I think that argument against making our country diverse or opening up more immigration falls down. The second thing is that I think, as Washington becomes more dysfunctional, power is going to the cities and states.
And I thought the basic efficacy of the Houston government this week is further sign that that may have to happen even more.
MILES O’BRIEN: So, Mark, would you agree that maybe the lessons of Katrina, for example, bore out and perhaps not only were the localities better equipped, but people themselves were better prepared? Is that possible? Or is this something the Trump administration can take credit for?
MARK SHIELDS: I don’t know if there’s credit.
I think that, certainly, early returns are encouraging. I think the public sector, I think the private sector, I think the voluntary sector, I think citizens, whether it’s the Cajun navy, whether it’s corporate involvement, and citizens helping citizens, I think has been impressive.
It’s been encouraging. At a time of dysfunction, of almost malaise in the country, in the midst of this national tragedy and personal tragedy, it’s been a source of some inspiration, of some elevation at least. So I think, in that sense, it’s good.
I think the president, not to belabor it, but I think he made a mistake by trying to lift the morale of folks by saying, it’s going to be quick.
It’s not going to be quick. It’s going to be long and arduous and difficult and painful and dislocating. But I think we got a good start.
MILES O’BRIEN: Yes, these are — it’s a much longer road than I think people fully appreciate.
Once we in the media and the nation kind of moves on to the next thing, it gets very difficult for these people on the ground. They still have a huge problem.
Quick. The administration wants to move as quickly as possible, it says, to get a relief package under way. How realistic is that, David? Do you think that there’s — given all that happened post-Hurricane Sandy and the efforts that you mentioned of Senator Cruz and others to try to block that aid package, will there be obstacles?
DAVID BROOKS: Yes, I think the first tranche of this package, they will get.
The second issue is whether they have what I talked about before, the offsets. And this is what Republicans have traditionally demanded. If we’re going to pay for Sandy relief, if we’re going to pay for Katrina relief, we got to rip the money from some other program.
And that seems to me an insane way to do government. You have got these permanent domestic policy programs. Then we have a pretty steady slate of disasters that we have to pay for. Every we have a disaster, to rip money from the permanent programs just seems, like, crazy.
Will they insist on the offsets this time? I think, in the first tranche, probably no, but the second tranche, $15 billion maybe in the first, but they’re talking about a $150 billion need. And so that’s just a gigantic budget lift.
MILES O’BRIEN: Well, and the proposal was to take money away from FEMA to help fund the border wall, right?
MARK SHIELDS: Yes. That’s right.
MILES O’BRIEN: I guess that’s probably a dead issue at the moment.
MARK SHIELDS: I don’t think that’s going to be revitalized, or run back up the flagpole.
I do think that Republicans are flirting, of course, with their tax cut, which has always been the narcotic of Republicans, that they in fact have to at some point, with any remote pretense of candor, abandon any pretense of a balanced budget.
I mean, they talk about — because they are going to finance the tax cut by tax cuts. That’s how they’re going to do it. And I do think — I do think that the will is there right now in the Congress to act. There will not be a Ted Cruz from the Northeast opposing aid to help people in Texas and Louisiana.
I think they will be as close to unity as you will see on Capitol Hill this year.
MILES O’BRIEN: All right, so what about the talk of government shutdown, which was in play before the storm came in? Is that gone now, you think?
DAVID BROOKS: Well, if this were a normal country with a normal government, you would think there’s no way. I think we’re…
MILES O’BRIEN: But that is not the case.
DAVID BROOKS: That is not the case.
So, I think there is still some chance. I have trouble. I do think this was a moment where they was some unification. Republicans know they can’t be total disasters as the governing party.
And I just wish there was some more forward-looking enthusiasm. The Chicago Fire, the San Francisco Earthquake, these were moments of revitalization for those cities, a chance to take the disaster and really build something.
So far, I haven’t seen much of a chance. What are we going to do with this and how are we going to make Houston a different city and a better city than even it was?
MILES O’BRIEN: Well, I suppose you could make an argument that, instead of talking, we should be talking about seawalls, right? Why not?
MARK SHIELDS: Well, the problem is that every study I’m aware of, which is probably not that many, has indicated that a dollar spent in preparation and avoidance of natural disasters is worth $15 that is spent in relief.
But there’s no political payoff for preparation. So, who benefits? I mean, the governor or senator or the president? Bill Clinton at Oklahoma City, his performance there helped him enormously.
John Lindsay almost ended his career on a snowstorm in New York City. And so — and, certainly, George Bush in Katrina. So, there doesn’t seem to be any political reward for making the preparation, doing the hard work, of building seawalls and taking — and part of Houston’s charm has been that there has been no zoning.
And so there really hasn’t been any regulation that would, in fact, interfere with environmental disaster. So, it’s a tradeoff that they have made in Houston that has led to the fact that there is affordable housing, even though it might be next to a machine shop and a junkyard.
MILES O’BRIEN: It seems we prefer to fund the fire department, rather than buying fire insurance. It’s kind of the way we roll in this country in some ways.
So, all right, so I got to ask this because it has come into play a lot this week. Is there any chance that there will be some sort of sea change, if you will, in political discussions about climate change, in the wake of this? How many of these storms do we have to go through before politicians come around on this one, David?
DAVID BROOKS: I would be stunned.
DAVID BROOKS: Climate change, in the way it wasn’t 20 years ago, it’s a total partisan issue now.
MILES O’BRIEN: Is that because Al Gore ran for…
MILES O’BRIEN: That’s the moment, isn’t it? Yes.
DAVID BROOKS: I happen to think he had some positive effects with the movement. I think he had a very negative effect.
You used to have John McCain and a lot of Republicans with climate change legislation.
MILES O’BRIEN: Right.
DAVID BROOKS: And once it became a Democratic issue, the Republicans had to go on the other side. And there was perverse effect of what Al Gore did.
MILES O’BRIEN: What do you think? Any chance of this?
MARK SHIELDS: Denial is more than a river in Egypt.
MARK SHIELDS: I mean, Eddie Bernice Johnson, the Republican — Democratic congresswoman from Texas, pointed out to her Republican colleagues, she said, this is the third once-in-500 storm that we have had in the past three years.
At some point, you have to say, what’s going on here? Is there something that I’m not considering?
But I agree with David that they will not — they’re not going to move on it. There’s — certainly, I don’t see the leadership anywhere.
MILES O’BRIEN: Well, you don’t have to be a math guy to realize that’s not working out very well. Right?
So, as far as the funding issues, they got to fund the government. They’re going to have to take care of the debt ceiling. All that is going to happen, do you think, now? What’s your thoughts on that? That’s a lot of work to do right now.
DAVID BROOKS: An inglorious trudge-through.
I think what’s happening — what has happened on Capitol Hill is, they have divorced the Trump administration. They have said, he’s — this guy is an independent. We’re going to have to do this thing ourselves.
And if they can’t do this, then the whole Republican Party is in big trouble.
MILES O’BRIEN: What about tax reform? That was something that, in the midst of this storm, President Trump was talking about. Is there any chance there will be any traction on that?
MARK SHIELDS: There is no tax reform.
What it is, is a tax cut. And they have concluded that there’s a real problem in this country when it comes to money distribution, that the poor have too much and the rich don’t have enough. And this is the solution.
DAVID BROOKS: Just to make Mark feel good, I don’t think anything is going to pass.
I was thinking, who was in office, who was in power in 1986? You had Dan Rostenkowski in the House, a guy named Bob Packwood in the Senate, James Baker,
MARK SHIELDS: Patrick Moynihan.
DAVID BROOKS: Patrick Moynihan, Bill Bradley.
MARK SHIELDS: Bill Bradley. Dick Gephardt. Yes.
DAVID BROOKS: This was like the dream team of legislative skill.
MARK SHIELDS: Yes.
DAVID BROOKS: And there’s just nobody like that, because they don’t — people do not have the experience to pass complicated legislation, let alone a White House.
Tax reform is incredibly hard, because every time you cut a loophole, there’s an army that wants to preserve it. And it’s just hard to…
MARK SHIELDS: Dick Darman.
DAVID BROOKS: Dick Darman is another figure.
MARK SHIELDS: Yes. Yes.
DAVID BROOKS: We have sort of lost human capital in Washington of people who know how to do complicated stuff.
MARK SHIELDS: It’s a good point. We have devalued it.
When you run against Washington long enough, and deprecate public service, I mean, after a while, you stop attracting or making it appealing for talented people to come and to stay. And then public service was an honorable and important…
DAVID BROOKS: The talent is a side, but the experience is low.
Those people had put through, over the previous 20 or 30 years, lots of complicated legislation, especially under Johnson, and even under Nixon.
And the people now, they just don’t have the experience of doing that.
MILES O’BRIEN: Experience counts, said the gray-haired guys sitting at the table, right?
MARK SHIELDS: Well, I have always been a big fan of term limits, especially in surgeons, you know?
MILES O’BRIEN: Absolutely.
All right, just quickly, just as the White House staff turns. The piece that came out today indicating that the president has become disenchanted with his new chief of staff, John Kelly.
Basically, the 15 people anonymously sourced in this story said, Donald Trump doesn’t like to be handled.
Any news here? Is this any surprise to either of you? And is John Kelly on his way out, you think?
MARK SHIELDS: There’s an old aphorism that is, someone who is always finding everyone else to be a horse’s ass, when you meet three horse’s asses in one day, the horse’s ass is you.
MARK SHIELDS: The problem is the guy who is still there.
It’s not — he was going to get the best people, because he knew the best people. He was going to bring them to Washington and going to just get everything done and get everything passed.
He brought the best people to Washington. They have all left. And now we’re working on, what, the second, third round? I mean, at some point, you have got to conclude, it is — the problem is the person who is there.
MILES O’BRIEN: All right, button it up quickly for us.
DAVID BROOKS: Yes.
Well, we — actually, it was the B-team that went out first.
MARK SHIELDS: OK.
DAVID BROOKS: So, now, if he starts firing people, he’s really firing what to him is the A-team.
MARK SHIELDS: I never thought of Mike Flynn as the A-team.
DAVID BROOKS: I don’t think he’s going to end up doing it.
But the guy is always fuming about something. And the fuming doesn’t often lead to anything. And I suspect that’s the case here.
MILES O’BRIEN: David Brooks, Mark Shields, have a great holiday weekend. Thank you.
MARK SHIELDS: Thank you. Thanks, Miles.