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Shields and Brooks on Obamacare repeal failure, Gorsuch grilling

March 24, 2017 at 6:30 PM EDT
Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks join Judy Woodruff to discuss the week’s news, including the GOP’s abandonment of a bill to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act, plus the House Intelligence Committee’s Russia probe and the Supreme Court confirmations hearings for nominee Neil Gorsuch.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: But first to the analysis of Shields and Brooks. That is syndicated columnist Mark Shields, and New York Times columnist David Brooks.

Gentlemen, I’m sorry there is no news to talk about today, but let’s see what we can find.

Mark, seriously, the move today in the Congress and by the president to pull this health care bill, what is there to say? The Republicans wanted — they said for months that this is what was going to happen.

MARK SHIELDS, Syndicated Columnist: The first thing, Judy, is, I think, a general statement. The Republican Party is an opposition party. It’s a protest party.

We have a protest president. We have a protest party. It’s not a governing party. It showed itself unable to accept the responsibility and the accountability of governing.

This bill wasn’t a bad bill. This bill was just an abomination. There was no public case that could be made for the bill. There was no public argument that could be made for the bill, because nobody knew what was in it. There was no public campaign for the bill, because no organizations — every organization that cares — that was involved in medical care, whether it was the American Medical Association, the American Psychiatric Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, they were all against the bill.

It was a terrible bill. There was nothing organized. The only organizing principle is, it was against Barack Obama. And Paul Ryan, a very earnest policy wonk, showed himself to be an inept political leader. He couldn’t even lean on the safest seats in his own party’s caucus.

Those are ones you say, these are people who are really not threatened for reelection. I need you. You have to vote.

He couldn’t even do that. And Donald Trump showed he has no understanding of the legislative process. He dealt in adjectives. It was wonderful, fantastic, glorious. He had no idea what was in it. The art of the deal just collapsed, and this is a man who gave away the store to the Freedom Caucus, and got nothing in return, didn’t even get their votes.

I mean, on no count was this anything but a disaster politically, and public policy, and just for the country.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How do you explain it, David?

DAVID BROOKS, The New York Times: Well, all those things contributed, Trump’s bad negotiation, lack of experience, the factionalism.

And people talk about divisions within the party, blah, blah, blah, but the core problem was philosophical and intellectual. The problem was with the substance of the bill. We live in a country that has widening inequality, where there’s a lot of people very — being very insecure.

And the Republicans could have taken some of their approaches, like the tax credits, like the health savings accounts and a lot of things, and to deal with the country as it is, as, say, take those mechanisms, market mechanisms, to reduce costs, but to give people basic security and shore up the coverage that they have now.

But, instead of doing that, they gave a bill that was, like, out of “1984,” which devastated the poor, $880 billion cut out of Medicaid, while enriching the rich, increasing the after-tax incomes of people making more than a million dollars by 14 percent.

So, this was like every stereotype of the Republican Party. And so it just didn’t fit the country. And the core problem for the Republicans is they can’t figure out what they want to govern.

Even if they were the best and most efficient legislators in the history of the world, if you don’t know what you want to do, and you don’t know how you’re going to address this country’s problems, you’re going to wind up with bills which are superficial, intellectually incoherent and unpopular.

And the last Quinnipiac poll had this at 17 percent. And so it was a failure of understanding, what we do we want to do? That’s what killed this bill.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And so what does that mean, Mark, for what the Republicans say they want to do next? The president and Speaker Ryan suggested tax reform. Major tax reform is the next on the agenda.

MARK SHIELDS: The deal that Republicans in Congress essentially made with Donald Trump, who they didn’t know and in most cases didn’t particularly trust, was, he will be the instrument of our achieving our agenda. He will be — whether it’s deregulation, whether it’s tax reform, or whatever.

I think that relationship was ruptured. Mutual trust, to the degree that it existed, was depleted today.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Between the president and …

MARK SHIELDS: Between the president and his party in Congress, the party itself.

Judy, I don’t think it’s going to — it’s not going to be easy. I don’t think anything is going to be easy from this point forward. If you are a Republican, all of a sudden, the midterm elections of 2018 got a lot closer. Why do I say that?

Because when a president’s job approval rating is 50 percent or above, the president’s party loses an average of 14 House seats in the midterm election. When a president’s job rating is below 50 percent, his party loses an average of 37 House seats.

Donald Trump today is in — in the best polls, in the high 30s. It’s hard to see how his numbers are going to go far north from here.

JUDY WOODRUFF: It is still early.

MARK SHIELDS: It is still early. It’s 64 days and all the rest of it.

But this is not a confidence-builder. This is not a trust-builder. And Republicans, all of a sudden, are starting to get nervous about 2018. They thought 2018, if you will recall, when they thought Hillary Clinton was going to win, was going to be the arrival of the golden age.

And right now, they’re going to be on defense. There is no Hillary Clinton to run against. There is no Barack Obama to run against. It’s a referendum on Donald Trump and his party. And, right now, that is not working in their direction.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What can Republicans get done now?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, if they stick with — I think Paul Ryan is a wonderful guy, a great politician, a good thinker.

MARK SHIELDS: Not a great politician.

DAVID BROOKS: OK, fair, fair.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes. No.

DAVID BROOKS: OK. But people like him. People on the Hill like him.

The ones who were going to vote for the bill, a lot of it was just to support Paul Ryan. But, intellectually, he used to work at a place called Empower America, where Jack Kemp and Bill Bennett worked. And it had — it was the orthodoxy of the 1980s Republicanism.

And if Republicans stick with that, well, then they will go down to defeat after defeat. And to me, the big question is, how will Donald Trump react to this? There was a lot of enmity, frankly, between him and Ryan in the last few days, bad communication, cutting deals behind each other’s backs, mostly Trump to Ryan.

And so will he say, OK, I’m not going to do this again? I’m going to run — I’m going to govern as a true populist. And maybe break up some of the orthodoxies that separate Democrats from Republicans. Maybe I won’t try to pass bills without — through the reconciliation process, which is a technical thing, but messes up every bill you try to pass, because it’s so arcane, restrictions on what you can put in a bill. And maybe I will try to be a 65 percent — get some Democrats, get some Republicans, and violate the Republican orthodoxy.

To me, that’s the smart lesson out of this. Run or govern — try to govern the way you actually ran, which is not orthodox Republican, anybody but.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But, if he does that, Mark, where does that leave Republicans, his own — his party?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, I’m not sure where it does.

I don’t think he’s constitutionally capable of doing that. The time to do that, David, was after the election. I mean, the country was yearning to be united. It was divided. It was polarized. That was the time to do it. You don’t do nine rallies. You don’t do red state rallies.

On the eve of the vote, you don’t go to Louisville and have cries of “Lock her up” in the room. You don’t do that. That is playing to the narrowest base.

I agree. At the outset, on health care, he should have brought in the Democrats and the Republicans and say, look, they have to come in. But he beat up on Obamacare, said it was terrible, it was horrendous, it was awful, it had to go.

Where is the purchase there for the Democrats to say, we want to be part of it? Now he’s walking away from health care in the country. He is responsible. They are the governing party. Do Republicans understand that? If health care is in trouble in this country, it’s the Republicans.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. This is a point to be underlined that Lanhee Chen made the good point that Obamacare is not going to explode. No one — on expert thinks that. It may deteriorate over time, but it’s not going to explode. They’re not going to walk back into this.

Second, Republicans now own the health care system in this country. And so it’s not like people are going to blame Barack Obama. He’s never going to be on the ballot again.

MARK SHIELDS: That’s right.

DAVID BROOKS: When things go bad, they’re going to blame the Republicans.

So, that’s why I think — I agree. I don’t think he’s going to pivot in some major way. But this is not brain science. Who elected him? Working-class voters, people making just above the Medicaid minimum. This bill hammered them.

Who elected him? People 50 to 64. This bill hammered those people. Why not take people who voted for you and reward them? That’s not — that’s like the normal thing to do. And he’s not doing it. And if he repeats the error in tax reform, same outcome.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, this wasn’t the only bad news for President Trump this week, Mark.

You had the FBI director come out and confirm publicly in a hearing before the Congress that they are investigating, the FBI is investigating ties between the Trump campaign and Russian government officials, says they don’t have evidence yet of coordination, collusion, but an investigation is under way.

MARK SHIELDS: Judy, the week began with the president being basically regarded and described by the intelligence chiefs of the country as dishonest, OK, I mean, that the charge was with baseless, a charge of felony he made against his predecessor, to the point where The Wall Street Journal, the organ of American conservatism, said he is on the verge of becoming — his relationship with honesty is so loose, he’s become a fake president, not a fake news president.

So, this is devastating. To say that an FBI investigation has been going on since July, since July, it’s hard to say that it’s going to come to nothing. And so this is serious stuff, and it’s hurtful.

It puts — when you doubt the president’s competence and his honesty in the same week, I mean, these are blows. Regardless of how loyal and dedicated and enthusiastic is his base, this is an erosion of public support and public trust.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How does it affect what he’s able to do?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, I was trying to think of a president who had a worse week. I mean, as Mark said, like, to have your major legislative initiative die, and your first major one, and then get a scandal into your integrity in one week, that’s a rarity in American history, let alone this early in a term.

I’m not sure we’re ever going to find some smoking gun that’s going to link the Trump campaign to Vladimir Putin. I mean, there is, to me — the big mystery is the almost magnetic pull between the Trump crowd and Russia. Like, what is the basis of that? Is it because he had so many investors?

And, as I have said before — and we seem to be getting a little closer to this answer — where did Paul Manafort come from? How did he become chairman of the Trump campaign in the middle of all this, a guy who had ties to mobsters from Russia?

These are not normal things. What was the chain of events that led to that? But whether we have will actually conversations or proof or actual evidence, we — I — we have oversold this story at times. I’m not saying it’s not significant, but we have leapt to the — connecting all the dots, when the dots really aren’t there right now.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, one other thing I want to ask you about, in any other week, this would have been the first thing we talked about.

But, Mark, that is the nominee to the Supreme Court by the president, Neil Gorsuch, had several days of hearings, didn’t answer all the questions the Democrats wanted him to.

Where does he stand? What do his prospects look like?

MARK SHIELDS: Didn’t even answer the questions that Sam Alito and John Roberts did when they were up there.

I will say one thing that the Trump campaign did very well. They did vetting. They vetted the judges. They knew whom they had. And if they had done as well in the Cabinet, it would be different.

He was the ideal nominee. And I think in spite of his becoming non-forthcoming and said there’s no Democrat judges, Republican judges, I think he had a very good week.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You think he’s safe for confirmation?

MARK SHIELDS: I think he — unless there is something out there.

But Chuck Schumer is not a guy who goes on a quixotic journey all by himself. He said he is going to lead a filibuster. But I don’t see the votes being there.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Thirty seconds.

DAVID BROOKS: I think the Democrats are making a big mistake. The guy is clearly qualified. He is clearly within the realm of what any Republican would nominate. And we’re lucky to have a guy of that quality.

I thought he behaved outstandingly. Democrats should pick their fights. They will have plenty of fights in the Trump era. But to blow up the filibuster rules over this is undignified and an insult to the Senate.

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

MARK SHIELDS: Thank you, Judy.

DAVID BROOKS: Thank you.

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