TOPICS > Politics > Shields and Brooks

Shields and Brooks on pipeline politics, Christie scandal

January 31, 2014 at 6:40 PM EDT
Syndicated columnist Mark Shields and New York Times columnist David Brooks join Judy Woodruff to discuss the week’s top news, including the Keystone oil pipeline debate, a new claim about Gov. Chris Christie’s traffic scandal knowledge, plus final thoughts on the State of the Union and predictions for the Super Bowl.

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.

So I want to ask you for your Super Bowl predictions in a minute, so you have got a few minutes to think about that, but there are a couple of new stories bubbling today.

David, one of them is this Keystone oil pipeline statement by the State Department that they don’t think that there is a serious environmental damage that would be created if they finished the pipeline. What’s the effect? This has been a hot potato issue. What effect did this have?

DAVID BROOKS: Well, the president has been waffling, sort of signaling he’s going to OK the thing. His view is that the thing is sort of overblown, has become a symbolic issue of whether you are for fracking or against fracking, what your attitude is toward the natural gas industry.

I think the assumption has always been that, at the end of the day, after making sort of a political gesture toward the environmental movement, he was going to end up on the other side. And if you listen to the State of the Union address, the energy revolution in this country is possibly the best thing economically that has happened to the country in a long time.

And so he was bragging about how much energy we’re producing, how much we’re beginning to export, how it changes the dynamic in the Middle East. It’s been a wonderful boon to the American economy. So I think at the end of the day, he is not going to want to get in the way of that, even on a symbolic issue or semi-symbolic issue.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Mark, do you think this just sort of smooths the way for the president to say it’s OK to go ahead with the expansion?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, it makes it tougher for him to say no, I think.

But I think the risk to Democrats is that it could alienate one of the most activist blocs in the party going into the 2014 elections, and that if environmentalists decide to sulk and sit on their hands and say, this president has let us down, and it could be a real deficit for Democrats.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And so — and we will watch and see.

We know there is another — John Kerry, secretary of state, has got to make a decision and tent president.

MARK SHIELDS: That’s right.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, the other story that came out, this is late today, has to do with Gov. Christie, the New Jersey governor, and whether he knew or didn’t know, David, about the closing down of traffic lanes on the bridge leading into New York City, and what it — it is a little confusing, but there is a New York Times story saying, quoting the former head of the Port Authority, who said that — who is saying Gov. Christie did know that this was going on.

And now Christie’s office has come out subsequent to that and said well, that’s OK, that confirms what he said.

So how do you — what do you take away from all this?

DAVID BROOKS: Viewers with disturbingly long memories will remember that I thought this wouldn’t hurt him too much.


DAVID BROOKS: So that view is looking a little less tenable as time goes by.


DAVID BROOKS: And so it has begun to hurt him just because there’s been a series of other stories following along.

But I did say that if it turns out that the central claim of that long news conference was that he did know contemporaneously, then he’s in big trouble. And so we don’t know the state of the evidence, the quality of the evidence. But argue about verb tenses aside, if he knew contemporaneously, then he doesn’t only look like a bully. He looks like somebody who got up there and said something that was either withholding the truth or simply untrue.

So, I don’t want to say we are there yet, but if it turns out to be there, I do think it really becomes quite damaging. And it’s even possible to imagine he won’t be able to run for president.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So it doesn’t matter whether it’s proven, Mark, that there was a political motivation, that he wanted to punish this mayor, what really matters is…


MARK SHIELDS: Yes, his word. I mean, he was pretty unequivocal and pretty clear.

And I think most Democrats would concede that he was the most formidable candidate in 2016 that they were most afraid of. They are less afraid today. This is the man, David Wildstein, who was his high school classmate.

JUDY WOODRUFF: This is the Port Authority…

MARK SHIELDS: Port Authority official to whom the message was sent from Christie’s deputy chief of staff, “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.” And so he was the guy to execute the plan. And there was a plan. This wasn’t just obviously a hanging phrase. There had been a plan. This was the activation order.

What is interesting, Judy, is this — everything goes back to high school. Chris Christie in high school said he didn’t really know — he said subsequently he didn’t really know David Wildstein, who he praised as a tireless advocate for the people of New Jersey when he left.

But he didn’t really know him, because he, Chris Christie, had been class president, he had been an athlete, and David Wildstein hadn’t been a cool guy who sat at the cool guy’s table in the high school cafeteria. And this is sort of the revenge of the geeks.


JUDY WOODRUFF: I mean, so both of you are saying, no matter what comes out of this, his brand, his — his — his persona is hurt?

MARK SHIELDS: I think the Times’ reporting has been pretty tough.

I mean, they did a long documented piece earlier this week on his office and how intimately he was involved in everything that went on, the politics of it, the substance of it, the campaign of it, you know, that he was a hands-on guy.

This is the argument for Chris Christie. This is a guy with wonderful political instincts, he’s a guy in charge. And now the defense is, he wasn’t curious, he didn’t know. And I just — or he was passive. And I just think it becomes more of a problem for them politically, whether legally or something else.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, I think even bragging that you were a class president, big man on campus, you have already alienated 98 percent of the American public.


JUDY WOODRUFF: That’s right.

DAVID BROOKS: I’m sure people in Mark’s social circle are very upset about it.



DAVID BROOKS: Not my social circle, of course.



JUDY WOODRUFF: Go ahead, yes.

DAVID BROOKS: But just one other point. You are from New Jersey, you’re governor. Read Machiavelli. If the guy has some evidence to burn you, stay loyal to him, and he didn’t do that.


MARK SHIELDS: Yes, don’t — I could never understand that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Alright, this is the week of the State of the Union, just three days ago, 72 hours.

David, what are we left with at this point? Did the president help himself? Did he advance his cause by what he had to say?

DAVID BROOKS: I just — I go back to the wet noodle. That has only been reinforced by just what I have heard from people around, that there is a sense of uninspired, not thrilled, ratings not great, not big ideas.

And I do think it was a misreading, on reflection, a misreading of the country. With a country in fear of really decline, I do think you have to have something big. And that means you probably can’t have something passable. But I do think he had the opportunity to really change the debate in some large way to really maybe not pass legislation, but pave the way for a future president to pass legislation by introducing ideas, creating networks behind mobilizing a movement for equality, for opportunity, for social mobility.

And he could have laid the predicate for something big that would have felt big and commensurate with the moment, and I guess I don’t think he did that.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How do you read…


MARK SHIELDS: I can’t argue that it wasn’t big. I don’t think children in the future generations will be memorizing large chunks of this speech and committing them to memory.

But I do think that it was the word that we used — I think Gwen used it in the post-election, post-speech analysis — and that was it was workmanlike. It worked politically. It wasn’t uplifting. It wasn’t the lift of a driving dream.

But I do think that it has put the Republicans, quite frankly, on the defensive by the issues the president did raise. The Republicans have been scrambling since to prove that they’re not just the opposition, the blind opposition, that they do have alternatives, whether — and they are even now revisiting — I think forced to revisit health care.

They just can’t be blindly let’s repeal it. And they’re wrestling with immigration, which is truly the San Andreas Fault of the Republican Party. This is potentially combustible for them.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, he only touched briefly on immigration. But since then, he’s indicated, David, just in the last day or so that he’s open to — frankly to language that the Republicans were supporting.

Now, the House Republicans have been off at a retreat for the last couple of days. What is coming out of that and what do we think about it?


DAVID BROOKS: Well, the president was actually deft about that. He didn’t want to get out in front of the Republicans. He wanted them to take the initiative and then he could embrace.

And Boehner got out there and issued some principles. I thought they were good principles. I guess I thought when he issued the principles that they had found a way to heal the fault.


DAVID BROOKS: And my understanding is they actually haven’t found a way to heal the fault.

And they are certainly not going to want to do it, raise anything before primaries, because they don’t want Republican candidates to be faced with primary challenges on this issue. So that pushes it off for a bit of a while. And then I think the opposition is still strong. So I’m less hopeful that they’re going to be able to get something out of the House, let alone something that is manageable with the Senate.

MARK SHIELDS: The problem the Republicans face is a very simple one. The Republicans have the House. In all likelihood, they are going to hold on to the House.

The Republicans can and maybe even expand that in 2014. The Republicans cannot win the presidency with their present position on immigration and the position of Mitt Romney in 2012. They have to deal with it. It is the difference between the electorate in 2014 and that in 2016 is approximately 42 million people.

Of those 42 million people, half of them will be African-American, Asian, and Latinos.



JUDY WOODRUFF: Who won’t be voting, you’re saying, this year?

MARK SHIELDS: They won’t be voting.

So they can win an election where whites are disproportionately represented, where older voters are disproportionately represented. They cannot compete presidentially. And I just think the party is — you know, Ronald Reagan won 45 percent of the Latino vote in California in 1984.

Republicans held half the House seats in California. Today, as a consequence of Republican policy, beginning with Pete Wilson, but followed by Republican presidential candidates, the Republicans are not even competitive in California. And that’s 55 votes out of one-fifth of all you need to get elected president.

And that is happening in Colorado, in Florida, in Virginia, in Nevada, across the country. I mean, this is a party that is writing off the White House.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Quick change of subject.

Ben Bernanke, today is his last day as chairman of the Federal Reserve. We heard Paul Solman talk to economists on both sides of the political spectrum. David, how do you see it?

DAVID BROOKS: I think it was gutsy.

I think, right now, we have to think he did a fantastic job. It was gutsy to really not only unfurl the tools, but unfurl tools he didn’t know he had.


I mean, when the — everybody else went weak in the knees and were naysayers and everything, particularly the Congress, the Republicans, he really stood up. I mean, he stood between this country and the gulf, I mean, and disaster. And I think he deserves an awful lot of credit. I really do.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You both give him an A. or something like that?

DAVID BROOKS: We will see how it is all unwound, but yes.



JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, the final and most important question, the Super Bowl. I want a prediction from both of you and what are you looking for?


DAVID BROOKS: Well, when your own team is not in the Super Bowl, you have a moral — two moral obligations. You can either root for the team from the most economically disadvantaged city.

MARK SHIELDS: That’s right.

DAVID BROOKS: And Denver and Seattle, I think, are about even. So, they are pretty economically advanced. So there is a wash there.

So then you have to go on the moral caliber of the role model.


DAVID BROOKS: And here you have Peyton Manning, who is a very perfect presentation.

For Seattle, Richard Sherman, the defensive back, a bit of a braggadocio manner, you would say, so I do think you have to go with Manning on that. So that is my moral preference.

My game decision preference is that Seattle wins.


All right, Mark.



MARK SHIELDS: Let’s take a word for Richard Sherman, who came out of Compton, which is a tough city in California, gangs, and turned down a scholarship to the University of Southern California to go to Stanford, where he graduated, finished second in his high school class. Because he wears dreadlocks and maybe he has…


DAVID BROOKS: No, but he says bad things about Crabtree. That’s…

MARK SHIELDS: He apologized for that.


MARK SHIELDS: Judy, favorites are favorites for good reason. Favorites usually win.

I like underdogs. I root for the filly to win the Kentucky Derby, which it doesn’t do. I root for the kid who went to law school nights and worked days to get the promotion, and it’s always the CEO’s nephew that gets the promotion instead.


MARK SHIELDS: I am rooting for Russell Wilson, even though Peyton Manning is a totally admirable human being and great citizen. I am rooting for Seattle, and they will win.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, you can bet we’re going to hold to you account on this one.

David, two answers you gave.


DAVID BROOKS: Well, on the game outcome, we agree. So, that’s probably true.


JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, thank you both.

MARK SHIELDS: Thank you.