TOPICS > Politics > Shields and Brooks

Shields and Brooks on U.S. intervention in Iraq, presidential poll numbers

June 20, 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 current political agenda of religious conservatives in America, the election of Rep. Kevin McCarthy to be House majority leader, new poll numbers for President Obama and the murky goals for U.S. military intervention in Iraq.

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 the Faith and Freedom Coalition, Mark, what is both what — the fact that they held this, they heard from these potential candidates in 2016, what is — what should we think about the place of religious conservatives in the Republican Party today?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, it’s somewhat diminished, and not certainly represented by the turnout, because candidates show up wanting, if not to be the first choice, to be, as John Weaver, the Republican strategist, said, second or third choice, for example.

Chris Christie is not going to be the first choice of religious conservatives, but he wants to be on good terms with them in case he does run and is in the — in the finals.

I would say this, Judy. The economic conservatives, the fiscal conservatives, certainly represented by the Tea Party and its energy, has eclipsed them. And, plus, America has changed. And just think about it; 10 years ago, George W. Bush’s campaign for reelection was based in large part, as a strategic force, by putting on the ballot same-sex marriage initiatives, all of which were defeated overwhelmingly, and helped him carry the state of Ohio, the crucial state of Ohio against John Kerry.

That has changed in America. And so part of that — the religious Faith and Freedom group is kind of looking for its issue and its traction, as well as its agenda.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Eclipsed by the Tea Party?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, I think only a little, clearly, on some of the budget issues — the social issues have not been as prominent — and clearly in the Washington debate we have had over the last three or four years.

Nonetheless, first of all, out in the country and especially among the electorate and primary voters, I think religious conservatives are as powerful or nearly as powerful as they always have been. Rick Santorum did fantastically well last time, winning double-digit states on the backs of these voters. And if you can double-digit states being Rick Santorum, a guy who got crushed in Pennsylvania, if you’re a more plausible candidate, you can do really well.

The donors of the party often say, oh, we should get off the abortion issue. Whatever you think of substance, politically, that would be insane for the Republican Party. They need to be a pro-life party. And then finally I do think there are issues that are still salient that they are the champions of.

The first is family formation, which they talk about very well and very comfortably, and second is religious liberty issues, especially abroad. There’s a lot of talk about it in the conference this year, other religious issues abroad, the Christian in Sudan who is possibly going to be executed, but then religious liberties at home, some of the groups that are going to be called hate groups because of their religious beliefs.

So I think that religious liberty issue is a sleeper issue which will power and repower this movement.


MARK SHIELDS: I would just say Rick Santorum’s message was essentially — I agree with you he’s a cultural conservative, always has been, staunch, but he was a blue-collar candidate.

He’s called his party to task for being the party of the 1 percent. And he said he wants to represent the Americans who get up every morning and punch a time clock, who pack a lunch. And the Republican Party certainly, as it met, it convention, in 2012 didn’t speak to those people; they spoke only the entrepreneurs and people founding their own business.

DAVID BROOKS: I was going to say, the religious conservatives, it’s true, have moved. They have moved, as Mark just described, in a more blue-collar direction.

They have also moved to the right in other issues. There used to be a strong evangelical immigration reform constituency.

MARK SHIELDS: That’s right.

DAVID BROOKS: That has diminished. A strong evangelical environmental constituency, that has diminished. So they moved down-market, if you want to put it that way, and also rightward on certain issues.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But does that say the candidate — the Republican candidates in 2016 not only can’t ignore these Detroit this group of conservatives, that they have to continue to cater to them, to talk about the issues that they care about?

MARK SHIELDS: To appeal to them.

JUDY WOODRUFF: To appeal to them.


JUDY WOODRUFF: That’s a better term. Thank you.

MARK SHIELDS: No, I mean, they’re important. They provide energy, they provide passion, they provide foot soldiers, they provide votes.

And I would just say the evangelical conservatives on the environment and on immigration are still out there and are still active and still energized. They just aren’t as active — as welcome in the Republican coalition right now.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, the — one of the — we just heard from the House — newly elected, David, House majority leader, Kevin McCarthy. Have you seen enough of him to get any impression yet about how the House is going to change, how’s Congress going to change?

DAVID BROOKS: Yes. No, I have dined with him a few times.

Listen, kids, it pays to be nice. He’s just a good guy. And I don’t think he represents anything particularly ideological one way or the other. He’s not a particularly ideological guy. His expertise is in knowing congressional districts. He’s a political guy, a campaign guy.

And as whip, he had moderate success in a very difficult job. But the thing about McCarthy is, he’s unpretentious, he’s outgoing, he’s just friendly. He just likes people. And so that plays well in politics, especially in the leadership race.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So what’s going to change? Is anything going to change?

MARK SHIELDS: Well, it’s what politicians used to be, instead of these ideological lightning rods.

JUDY WOODRUFF: They all used to be nice?

MARK SHIELDS: Yes, well, they used to — well, they used to be engaging and try and figure out ways to build bridges to other people.

And David has described Kevin McCarthy very well. Kevin McCarthy makes John Boehner’s life a lot easier. Eric Cantor, there was always a sense lurking over his shoulder. The ambition was there. And he certainly — his fingerprints were all over the sabotaging of the great bargain with President Obama on the budget, his being Eric Cantor’s.

Kevin McCarthy is not that. He’s very good. He recruited the candidates who won in 2010. He’s very good at his business. And bringing California, Bakersfield, perspective to it, he’s already on record as saying he believes there has to be a path for legal status for undocumented workers.

So, there is a — that’s daylight. He may have to reassure those on the right that he isn’t some sort of a one-worlder, but that is Kevin McCarthy and that’s what California…

JUDY WOODRUFF: You sure you don’t like just him because his Irish heritage?


MARK SHIELDS: Kevin and his daughters are, what, Reagan and Meghan.

MARK SHIELDS: Yes, he does…

JUDY WOODRUFF: But nothing — but neither one of you sees things changing in terms of the House, the Republicans?

DAVID BROOKS: Just, as Mark said, a more unified leadership.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The way the House operates.

DAVID BROOKS: A friendlier and more unified leadership. John Boehner’s life will be better.


DAVID BROOKS: It will be happier. He will be happier.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, what does that mean for the president, who — let’s talk about the poll numbers that came out. NBC/Wall Street Journal shows — and we have got some of these to share with our audience — overall, the president’s approval rating, 41 percent on foreign policy; 37 percent of those polled, David, said they approve of the way the president is handling foreign policy.

From the middle of Iraq, it’s come off of Syria. What can the president do? Is he just in a box for the rest of his presidency on this?

DAVID BROOKS: He might be.

There are sort of two tracks that second termers have. There’s the Clinton track, where they go up at the end, and then there’s the George W. track, where they go down at the end. And he’s sort of trailing the George W. track, maybe not quite as deep.

I guess two things. At some point, it’s hard for him just because people are interested in other things. Just fatigue. And a lot of people have a sense — you just hear from people — and I don’t think this is true in the White House — but you hear from people around Washington, but certainly around the country, oh, that guy just wants to get out. He’s just done.

And I don’t think they feel that, but there’s a sense they’re not doing much. They seem fatigued. And so there’s a perception out there that Obama is not, you know, charging into the office every morning and wants to take charge of the country.

And I do think the reason the polls are sliding is a sense of a lack of energy in the White House, that we’re proposing big things, that we have big visions. And if I were him, I would say let’s try some big things. Let’s counteract this image.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, but I understand you to say you don’t think that’s what the White House is thinking, that they just…

DAVID BROOKS: Well, if you ask them, if you say, are you guys just exhausted and are you guys just checked out, they deny it fervently.

MARK SHIELDS: Peter Hart, the Democratic pollster who did the poll that we just showed, along with Republican Bill McInturff, made the point that the president seems to be the captor of events, rather than — we like to think of our presidents as dominating events.

Obviously, not everybody can dominate all events, but he’s been reacting to Ukraine, to Syria, to…


MARK SHIELDS: … to Iraq, to the VA, Veterans Administration, just seems constantly on the defensive.

And I think, Judy, the most devastating number was thinking about the rest of Barack Obama’s term as president, do you think he can lead the country and get the job done?

JUDY WOODRUFF: And let’s show that poll. We have got that here.


Do you no longer feel that’s he’s able to lead the country and get the job done?


MARK SHIELDS: Judy, this is a president, remember, since Dwight Eisenhower, only one American has won 51 percent, more than 51 percent of the vote in successive elections.

That’s Barack Obama. And here he is with 54 percent of the American…

JUDY WOODRUFF: Just a year-and-a-half later.

MARK SHIELDS: Year-and-a-half later saying it’s — nothing is over, but we just don’t think you’re up to it. That’s devastating, and it’s devastating for Democrats going into — the poll is not good for Republicans.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Right, and we have the numbers to show there. If you think the president’s doing poorly, look at this. He’s 41, the Democrats overall 38, the Republican Party 29 and the Tea Party 22.

But this sense, Mark — David, the point that Mark just made about this sense that the president is reacting, does a president do? Historically, what do presidents do in that…

DAVID BROOKS: Well, they sometimes shake things up and fire people.

That sometimes does happen. And it creates a sense of a new beginning. And then the second thing they do is they have a burst of energy on some initiative. And I think a foreign policy vision, the president’s vision on foreign policy has been what we won’t do, and I think that’s had a slow corrosive effect on people’s sense of his energy.

On domestic policy, they have decided to be content with signing statements and things they can do administratively, rather than legislation. I might — I have thought — and they have thought about this, putting down some big proposals, knowing they probably won’t get passed, but make life a little easier for your successor, and so some big inequality proposals, just to throw them out there and get the debate started.

I do not think that would be a dumb idea. At least that would be some big movements, some big things coming out of the White House.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But Iraq — Mark, you’re right. That’s something they have had to react to. The president did announce two days ago 300 — or yesterday, I guess — military advisers going to Iraq. I mean, that’s an active step, isn’t it?

MARK SHIELDS: Not really.

I mean, Judy, for those of us of a certain age, that has echoes of Saigon and American advisers, 300 advisers. You know, American — we just sent 275 Marines to protect the American Embassy, which is larger — in Baghdad — which is larger than the Vatican City, larger — it’s the most expensive embassy, 10 times larger than any other American Embassy — there to defend it; 300 are there.

We know why they’re there, to provide the intelligence.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But does that suggest he would need to send the Air Force to bomb Iraq in order to get a higher approval rating?

MARK SHIELDS: I assume, from everything I know and have learned, that those American special forces are being sent in primarily to provide the information, the intelligence, the reconnaissance, so that if drone attacks are called in, they know precisely, and there won’t be collateral damage and civilian casualties all over the place.

But, Judy, what is the objective, what is the exit strategy? How will we know when we have succeeded? What is the mission? Are we back in where we were 40 years ago?

JUDY WOODRUFF: And you’re saying the president hasn’t provided…

MARK SHIELDS: There’s no — and there’s no sense of national commitment to it. There’s no sense of collective national will to it. There’s popular reflection in the Congress to it.

I don’t know what we’re trying to achieve there and how we will know we have achieved it.

DAVID BROOKS: Yes, I do agree with Mark on that he last point.

The president said, we’re sending in 300, there will be no combat operations. That’s defining the mission by the means, by the process, but What exactly is the mission supposed to do? I think you could very clear say what it’s supposed to do. We will not allow an ISIL state in Sunni land.

And, two, we will get an international coalition to make sure there’s a united — at least some cross-sectarian government in Baghdad.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We’re going to leave it there. Thank you, gentlemen, David Brooks, Mark Shields.